Columns » Warwick Sabin

Black votes no longer certain

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Does anyone doubt President Bush’s resolve to accomplish his stated goals? By this time, no one should. With that in mind, it is worth tracing the trajectory of his appeal to black voters, which is part of a broader effort to build a permanent national Republican majority. Consider the consistency of his message. In July, during his re-election campaign, Bush addressed the Urban League. He suggested the Democratic Party is taking black votes for granted. According to The Hill newspaper, two days after the Nov. 2 election, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said “the Democratic Party should be on notice that it should not take blacks for granted.” Last month, which was Black History Month, Bush delivered the same message when he met with black ministers, the Congressional Black Caucus, and even a committee of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Without much subtlety, Bush is using moral and religious issues to appeal to blacks in much the same way that they were employed to attract Southern and blue-collar whites — also once reliable Democratic voters — to the Republican Party. Already his strategy appears to be having an effect, as last weekend Knight Ridder and the New York Times exposed the role of faith in bringing more blacks into the Republican fold. Both articles began by quoting the same Maryland bishop about his opposition to same-sex marriage. If blacks have stayed loyal to the Democratic Party until now, it is because of its commitment to civil rights and economic justice. However, the black community always has been religious, and among black people the church still plays an important role in political and social life. In Arkansas, any shift in the voting habits of the black population could have a tremendous effect on the political landscape. Blacks comprise roughly 15 percent of registered voters, and they overwhelmingly support Democrats, often providing the margin of victory in close races. If anything, the Democrats need a reliable black vote more than ever, just to offset the rapid growth of Northwest Arkansas and the suburban “white flight” communities across the state, which are adding to the Republican base. Furthermore, black religious leaders play an important role in state politics, often as kingmakers, and candidates recognize the influence they have in their congregations and communities. There is barely a statewide elected official who has not made a presentation in front of a group of black ministers, or appeared before a Sunday black church meeting. With faith playing such an important role in black communities in general, and black politics in particular, are Arkansas Democrats likely to lose their most loyal constituency? Maybe, says state Rep. Linda Chesterfield, who chairs the Democratic Black Caucus. She acknowledged that the issue of gay marriage is troublesome, because “it runs counter to the religious faith of a majority of black people.” However, she stresses that blacks do not hate homosexuals, and will not respond to appeals based on hate of any kind. Chesterfield also says that while black ministers hold a prominent place in the community, “so do elected officials,” and “there is not one segment of the population that determines the black vote.” “There is less religious influence on how we vote in the black community than in the community-at-large,” Chesterfield added. “We don’t put up big screens in the church and say one person represents the devil and one doesn’t.” Mainly, she stresses that “Democratic issues are moral issues,” arguing that the Democratic Party stands for policies that protect the elderly, children, and the poor. “We gave the nation Social Security, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — we were that party,” Chesterfield says. “Because of what the party has done, African-Americans have stayed with the Democrats. We understand wedge issues very well, and faith is important to us, but we will not be taking that for granted.” That may be the case, and the Democratic Party may be able to prevent its black voting base from being chipped away with moral and religious issues. But ironically, in the course of protecting that flank it may have to grapple with an attack on the most vital part of its appeal to the black community, in the form of Win Rockefeller’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Chesterfield said that the Rockefeller name still resonates in the black community because of Winthrop Rockefeller’s civil rights record as governor in the late 1960s. His son, the lieutenant governor, has maintained a good reputation with blacks through grants made by the charitable foundation his father created and other public demonstrations of support. If, as Bush likes to say, the Democrats are taking the black vote for granted, now is the time to stop.

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