By BILL MAXWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 18, 2000
While listening to a popular South Florida black radio station the other day, I nearly drove my Blazer off the road when I heard this political ad: "Look, we know what you think Republicans are like, but we're working hard to show you who we really are."
This ground-beaking radio spot is paid for by none other than the Republican National Committee.
For good reason, even RNC spokesman Clifford May calls the ad "absolutely historic and unprecedented." Never in the history of contemporary voting have blacks, as a voting bloc, been courted directly by Republicans.
The time is right because blacks represent a potentially make-or-break force in congressional elections and in the run for the White House. Unlike in years past, Republicans, especially Texas Gov. George W. Bush, have not automatically ceded the African-American vote to Democrats.
GOP and Democratic party leaders are asking if 2000 is the year that blacks -- traditionally a voting monolith -- can tip the scales in favor of Democrats. Pollster say that as many as five Senate races are tight, and the African-American vote can make the difference.
As to the presidential matchup, blacks have large populations in key battleground states such as Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. If they turn out in big numbers, argues David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Vice President Al Gore will benefit the most. Bositis, who focuses on minorities, said that a 1 percent black turnout in 13 different House districts could put Democrats back on top.
John Zogby, an independent pollster who follows minority voting patterns, agrees: "If they are able to bring out a big turnout, they'll be able to do what they did in '98. A heightened turnout could put Gore over the top in some key states."
To shore up this constituency, Gore hired Donna Brazile as his campaign manager. Brazile is the one-woman whirlwind who ran the 1998 get-out-the-vote effort that helped Democrats make gains in the South. The Democratic National Committee has gone full bore to woo African-Americans, and President Clinton, the darling of most blacks, is using his considerable influence to hold onto his party's most loyal bloc.
And for the first time, the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, has mounted a multi-million-dollar drive called the National Voter Fund to register millions of black voters and get them into the booth. The effort is concentrating on key battleground states. The Rev. Jesse Jackson toured Florida last week to energize the black vote for Democrats.
Many experts believe that blacks are fired up like never before and will not disappoint the party they traditionally have seen as their ally. Clearly, pragmatism, along with long-running dislike of Republicans, is guiding black leaders in backing the Democrats, especially Gore. Many black leaders say that their people stand to gain or lose more ground than ever before depending on who becomes president.
The Christian Science Monitor sums up what is at stake: "For the first time in years, this election involves issues directly related to (blacks): racial profiling, Supreme Court appointments, hate-crimes legislation and gun control, to name a few. At the same time, they have significant gains to protect: the lowest unemployment and poverty on record, and the highest minority home- and business-ownership ever recorded. If Democrats take the House, African-Americans stand to gain political power, ascending to three weighty committee chairmanships and 19 subcommittee chairmanships."
The Monitor reports that during the last presidential election, the black vote was the lowest it had been since 1924. In 1998, it fell at the rate that the general vote declined, but it rose in key states where Democrats won.
Targeting the black vote has paid high dividends for Democrats, according to the Monitor: "In Georgia, for instance, black turnout went from 19 percent of the overall vote in 1994 to 29 percent. In neighboring South Carolina, it went from 21 percent to 26 percent."
For their part, the GOP is approaching African-American communities with promises of vouchers and other education-related goodies. With so many votes up for grabs, Bush erred at the NAACP national convention in Baltimore when he refused to discuss the major issues that blacks care about. Instead, he stuck to a script that appeals to the white middle class and so-called swing voters.
The trick now for both parties is getting registered black voters to vote.