Black elected officials face a dilemma. Do they endorse a presidential candidate they believe can win, or do they endorse a candidate on sentiment? The emergence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a viable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is forcing many traditional black politicians to rethink their positions on which hopeful to endorse. Sitting on this hot seat are big-city black officeholders and Southern black politicos.
Neither the National Association for the Ad-vancement of Colored People nor the National Urban League included this issue as a workshop topic at their recent annual meetings. Southern politicians tiptoed around the issue in a summit session for Southern Democrats in New Orleans last fall.
When the Joint Center for Political Study served as host to the fifth National Policy Institute in Washington last week, the issue of whom to back was not discussed thoroughly until the closing session, when many participants had left.
It was the final topic of a weekend during which more than 1,000 participants endorsed a black agenda covering the usual black issues - desegregated education, affirmative action, voting rights, civil rights, housing, the family, jobs for young blacks, and black enterprises.
When black Southern Democrats met in New Orleans in December, they set a Super Tuesday (March 8) agenda to present to presidential hopefuls of both parties. But they failed to pass a proposal that would have them support Mr. Jackson, yet also providing a second choice in case he was eliminated from the race. At a January meeting, black Democrats in Alabama approved such a resolution. In 1984 black Democrats in that state caused Jackson's defeat in the primary. He was especially hurt in Birmingham, where black Mayor Richard Arrington openly campaigned against him.
Mr. Arrington supports Jackson now, especially on Super Tuesday, when most Southern states hold their primaries.
The Jackson campaign includes the endorsement of many more elected officials now than in 1984. Four years ago when Jackson announced for the Democratic nomination, many black US congressmen looked the other way. Now at least 18 of them are reported in his corner. Then many black mayors in large cities were courteous but avoided him. But Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., was his campaign chairman. Mr. Hatcher lost in the primary as he sought reelection last year.
Mayor W.Wilson Goode of Philadelphia openly opposed Jackson. He barely won reelection last year. Mayor Harvey Gantt of Charlotte, N.C., was not a Jackson supporter, and he lost this year.
No scientific study of the fate of black political foes and supporters of Jackson has been reported, but grass-roots blacks say politicians should stick with them and support Jackson.
In Massachusetts, black Democrats are split on whether or not to endorse Gov. Michael Dukakis or Jackson. Bruce C. Bolling, who has just completed two years as president of the Boston City Council, is chairman of the Jackson campaign in Massachusetts.
``Sure, I support Jesse Jackson for president,'' Mr. Bolling says. ``I don't think backing him hurt me in my campaign for reelection to the City Council last fall.'' But did it affect efforts to reelect him council president? He lost. Bolling spent the recent National Policy Institute weekend as an advocate for Jackson, pigeonholing black politicians, soliciting their support.
On the other hand, Massachusetts state Rep. Raymond A. Jordan Jr. was a leader of a team of black politicians who spread the message for Governor Dukakis. He and two other black Dukakis supporters acted as hosts at a hospitality suite for Dukakis at the meetings.
``Dukakis is the man I support for president,'' Mr. Jordan says. ``I am ready to travel around the country to help him build a grass-roots base among black folk.''
The Jackson contingency, however, did not run a hospitality station but held a reception in the candidate's behalf. Jackson was the only candidate to show up, but he did not speak on the institute's program. At the reception he pleaded for funds, as he usually does when he makes a personal appearance.
In New York City, Harlem's two leading politicians, US Rep. Charles Rangel and Manhattan Borough president David N. Dinkins, have publicly announced that they support Jackson. Both will be running for office next fall. Mr. Dinkins is an undeclared candidate for mayor. Mr. Rangel is seeking reelection. In 1984 Rangel backed Walter Mondale, but Dinkins endorsed Jackson. Both New Yorkers declared themselves for Jackson Nov. 24 on the City Hall steps.
``Rev. Jackson can steer the nation on a reasonable and humane course,'' says Dinkins, who needs citywide support to become mayor. ``I admire his ability to lead our nation on a different course, a more humane concern, a direction that will result in a renewed commitment to the human needs of the American people.''
Rangel, well known for his battle against drugs, says, ``I did not endorse Mr. Jackson in 1984, but there is no doubt in my mind that he can be the salvation of the Democratic Party. This nation needs his voice, a voice that rises above the crowd.''
The nation's newest black mayor, Carrie Saxon Perry of Hartford, Conn., elected last November, says:
``Yes, I'm for Jesse Jackson. He speaks for what's dear to my heart - fair play, civil rights, hard work. He speaks out against racism. Yes, I say, `Win, Jesse, win!'''
But the basic question for many black officials remains - is it better to protect one's political alliances, white and black, or should they follow black sentiments and back a black candidate such as Jesse Jackson?