Jesse Jackson tugs at traditional political loyalty of L.A. blacks
Many black communities are scattered in and around south-central Los Angeles - from the housing projects of poverty-battered Watts to the Volvos and Mercedes-Benzes of Baldwin Hills, known as the ''black Beverly Hills.''Skip to next paragraph
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Where black presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson will run strongest is on the eastern side of the black community, where windows are barred and graffiti covers the walls - among the poorest and the youngest.
Mr. Jackson is looking to build his power base among ''outsiders,'' those who are most left out of the political system, particularly 18- to 25-year-old blacks who have not yet been inspired to register to vote.
But he has his work cut out for him in making a political impact here, whether the goal be to win his party's nomination or even to bring enough delegates to the convention to force black concerns to the forefront.
Local black leaders have high hopes for the Jackson charisma to bring new voters to the polls. But realistically, most admit, he must also make some inroads in the well-entrenched Democratic Party establishment.
This group of black ''insiders'' is comprised of union members, churchgoers, and the politically active. They are the people who vote most often, and they are the ones Jackson will have the hardest time attracting.
The strongest influence in political life here has traditionally been, and still is, the Protestant churches. To some extent, according to James H. Cleaver , executive editor of the Sentinel, a black Los Angeles newspaper, what the church does is what the community does. ''The people who go to church are the people who work every day and who vote every election,'' he says.
But church leaders are split on the Jackson candidacy. It is a split most political observers see as a deep and enduring fraction, since much of the local leadership has known Jackson for years and has well-formed views of his campaign.
African Methodist Episcopal Bishop H. H. Brookins, who was influential in launching Mayor Tom Bradley's political career, is a nationally prominent supporter of Jesse Jackson today. Yet Bishop Brookins's politics fall to the left of many black community church leaders and their congregations, which have strong ties to the Party establishment.
Black politicians here are also divided over whether to support Jackson's candidacy. More than the church leadership, however, elected officials are tending to back other Democratic candidates. While liberal assemblywoman Maxine Waters is taking a leading role in Jackson's campaign, Mayor Tom Bradley has publicly endorsed Walter Mondale.
Other local politicians are put in an awkward spot, caught between loyalties to the party that gives them their clout and to the black communities they represent.
''For a number of these people, they've made their careers in the Democratic Party. They're not going to throw that away for Jackson,'' notes Larry L. Berg, director of the University of Southern California's Institute for Politics and Government and a longtime Democratic campaign consultant.
Jackson's political base is in a different constituency, one without ties to party, union, or church and can't be reached that way, explains Peter Coye, a local campaign consultant. Jackson will have to reach these young outsiders through charisma, Mr. Coye says, and he rates Jackson high on that score.
''I can't think of anyone else who could put together a true rally in south-central Los Angeles. I think Jesse Jackson could. I think he could fill the Forum.''
''The big question,'' says John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, ''is whether Jesse Jackson will be able to leverage whatever support he has going into the convention.'' In other words, will Jackson be able to turn whatever delegates he takes to the Democratic convention into significant political influence?
''He would have to exceed even his own wildest expectations (in registering new voters) for that to happen,'' says Mr. Mack.
Campaign strategist Coye is skeptical that Jackson can register the 3 million new voters he's hoping for. ''But even if he gets 20 percent or so of that,'' Coye says, ''and shows up with delegates to a brokered convention, he could be extremely influential.''
Bishop Brookins, who has known and admired Jackson for 20 years, admits there are difficulties ahead. ''Under normal circumstances, this campaign would not be realistic at this time,'' he says, calling it is too late, too short of cash, and underorganized.
But with unemployment in the black community nationally over 20 percent, near 50 percent for black youth, and with Ronald Reagan in the White House, Brookins calls this an extraordinary time. ''This will be more of a crusade than a campaign.''