Pittsburgh blacks try to turn Jackson activism to local advantage

Democratic Committeewoman Mattie Stone is sitting in the living room of her row house in Pittsburgh's Homewood section explaining how the city's blacks can use the 1985 primary to increase their political representation.

''We're going to screen the candidates to make sure they're sincere about helping the community. We're going to get behind them with our expertise, she says. Then, with a mock warning to any other blacks who might try to run, she laughs and adds, ''Someone here predicted that after this primary we're going to have 100 blacks running for council next year.''

The past primary season saw an unprecedented - and some say atypical - galvanizing of this city's black electorate.

In the largely black Fifth Ward, Jesse Jackson volunteers, joined by various church and civic groups, helped increase voter registration by 19 percent over 1983. The number of residents voting increased 42 percent.

Voter turnout was higher in black wards than in most white wards. Jackson delegates even elected Mrs. Stone as the city's only non-Walter Mondale delegate.

But observers assess the April 10 primary cautiously. Black political power here has for too long been seen as an almost quixotic pursuit.

Other cities elect black mayors; Pittsburgh has only one black - a city councilman - in a major office.

With blacks comprising just 24 percent of the population, and with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 5 to 1, Democratic leaders view the black population as ''a captive audience, something they control. They know its size, and they know it's only part of the action,'' says University of Pittsburgh Prof. James Cunninghanm, a former ward chairman.

Black political influence - such as it is - has long been brokered by a few black ward chairmen. But a changing political climate has diminished their ability to get votes, and therefore their influence with the party.

''Since the patronage system has ceased, blacks have suffered tremendously,'' says 13th Ward Chairman ''Bubby'' Hairston. ''The jobs aren't there. You can't promise someone a clerk-typist's job anymore if she can't type.''

Black party influence hit its nadir in 1983, when Democrats endorsed not a single black for 17 city and county posts.

Enraged, some ward chairmen and community leaders looked to November and threw their support behind three lesser-known black Republicans.

The three did well in black wards, but lost the race, falling well behind in ethnic white wards. Significantly, the effort failed to increase black turnout.

In February, Pennsylvania House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis announced the formation of a Black Leaders's Coalition aimed at educating blacks who were longtime Democrats but who got ''little but crumbs in return.''

Jackson's arrival coincided with a growing perception in poor black neighborhoods of having been stranded economically.

In many ways, the recession's effects were harsher there than in Pittsburgh's better-publicized milltowns.

''Walk up Wylie, Webster, and Centre Avenues in the Hill District. Ninety percent of the men you meet are unemployed,'' says a Jackson supporter, the Rev. Samuel Ward. ''There is a sense here of having gone backwards.'' Tapping into that, Jackson generated widespread election interest, something at which the black establishment had been only half-successful.

He also left behind a grass-roots leadership ambitious to participate in local politics. ''And they have a strong vision because they have seen so many blacks elected in other cities,'' says Cunningham.

''The Jackson campaign brought a lot of people out and gave them expertise running a campaign. It also gave people in the black community who are seasoned in politics a chance to get involved in a serious national campaign,'' says community activist Mariana Davenport.

Leaders of the Homewood group Vote and Struggle say they hope to build a black constituency by tackling key local problems, such as police indifference toward street drug sales. Its goals include establishing district, rather than at-large, council seats - something many believe would bring more equitable representation.

Others have attacked voting procedures, staging a sit-in at an unemployment office to protest Pennsylvania's ban on registration drives in state buildings. A federal court later struck down the ban.

Like others, School Board president Jake Milliones, a black, wonders if the political enthusiasm can be sustained - the black leaders' major challenge.

''Certainly, the potential for a new body politic is here. But are there people willing to harness that energy, to work at the grassroots level? The real test will come when it's time to elect blacks to city or county offices. The question is how short people's memories will be relative to what happened last year.''

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