Blacks concerned Democratic Party will leave them behind
| Cambridge, Mass.
As the Democratic Party tries to regroup after its crushing presidential defeat in 1984, many blacks in the party say they are being pushed out of its mainstream. Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. has said that the Democratic Party has a basic mission to remain the nation's majority party. The general consensus among political observers is that Democrats must seek the white vote and move away from their emphasis on special interests.
Gov. Charles S. Robb of Virginia, for example, has said the party has paid too much attention to big labor, blacks, and feminists.
But black Democrats -- including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson -- say they are being sacrificed in the party's attempt to attract whites into the fold.
Democratic candidates have lost four of the past five presidential elections, although their party has held a majority in both houses of Congress most of the time. Currently Democrats are in the majority in the House and minority in the Senate.
Since Mr. Kirk was elected to head the DNC last February, the party has been retooling to build a new vehicle, one that can regain what was once the ``solid South'' -- which included blue-collar workers, farmers, and white liberals.
This policy is a rebuff to blacks who voted 90 percent Democratic in 1980 and '84, say blacks, basically Jackson followers. Only one white group, Jews, voted for Democrat Walter F. Mondale in 1984.
Blacks see the election of Illinois state comptroller Roland Burris to vice-chairman of the DNC as a ``first step'' to reduce the Rev. Mr. Jackson's influence. Mr. Burris defeated Mayor Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind. Mayor Hatcher was Jackson's campaign manager in the 1984 presidential primaries.
Foul, cried Jackson. Usually, the party has accepted the recommendation of its black caucus to fill one of its three national vice-chairmanships. Hatcher was the caucus's choice. But party officials pursuaded Burris to run against Hatcher, independent of the caucus.
As a result, Jackson has charged that the party wants to attract white males by ``proving they can get tough on blacks'' -- in this case, its black caucus.
His protest poses two questions for the Democrats. First, can the party become color blind, ethnic blind, and special-interests blind and win a national election? Or, in black terms, can a Democrat be president without catering to the black vote?
Second, can the new Democratic Party ignore Jesse Jackson and still retain the black vote -- 20 percent of Mr. Mondale's total -- in a presidential election? Jackson captured more than 80 percent of the party's black vote in the Democratic primaries last year.
``Democrats, sure that blacks `had nowhere else to go,' didn't invest campaign funds to court blacks in 1984,'' says Gracia Hillman, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation. ``They did help Operation Big Vote register blacks. Republicans, however, concentrated on registering whites.
``This strategy paid off, and Republicans captured 74 percent of the white vote in 1984. Democrats were too late in seeking whites, the majority constituency.''
Blacks can retain their clout in the party as it increases its white support, Burris says. ``In my office I can insist that my people [state party leaders] run more black candidates for office and support them actively,'' he says. ``Our party elected more black mayors last year than ever before. Mayors have grass-roots support.''
But Lamond Godwin, one of Jackson's top campaign strategists, disagrees. ``I believe Democrats are going in the wrong direction,'' he says. ``The party has changed its rules to select a presidential candidate. They may have a problem at the coalition level.''
Blacks are the party's ``most loyal supporters,'' he says, as do other blacks. By eliminating Mayor Hatcher as vice-chairman, Mr. Godwin adds, the party is diluting black influence and power in top echelons by reducing the influence of its black caucus.
Ms. Hillman notes that blacks ``who overwhelmingly look to Jesse Jackson for leadership and direction'' are signing up with his new Rainbow Coalition. The sprouting of local coalitions could develop into a strong leverage for a future Jackson presidential thrust. Jackson has not said whether he will run in 1988. But he does say the coalition will run candidates for local and state offices.