It's been a long afternoon of bingo at the Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center in Harlem, but a handful of black senior citizens are eager to talk politics as their game breaks up. The general consensus is that Michael Dukakis might be okay as the chief executive, and the Republicans are definitely ``bad news.'' But this is Jesse Jackson territory. In Harlem, his name is still golden, and the issues from his campaign are still central.
``I would take Dukakis any day,'' says Leslie Carter, a retired shipyard worker. ``Because he's out there with Jesse speaking for the people making under $20,000. Bush is only interested in people making over $200,000. He's talking about a flag. Can you eat a flag?''
After New York's divisive presidential primary last spring, some pundits wondered whether black voters here would feel bound to go to the polls and support Mr. Dukakis in November.
During the primary, many black voters were offended by what they perceived as personal attacks on the Rev. Mr. Jackson by New York Mayor Edward Koch. And many of these same blacks were not enthusiastic about Dukakis, who won the contest over Jackson with a strong performance in the suburbs outside New York City and on Long Island. In the city, he lost to Jackson by a narrow margin.
In order to win New York's 36 electoral votes, Governor Dukakis is counting on support from the state's nearly 2.5 million black voters.
In recent weeks a new rapprochement between the Dukakis and Jackson forces appears to be forming. A three-week voter-registration drive has started, intended to add 100,000 new voters before the Oct. 15 registration deadline.
The ``Keep Hope Alive'' voter registration drive is one arm of a city-wide movement sponsored by the Democratic Party. Its staff includes many Jackson supporters. The drive targets the approximately 1.5 million eligible but unregistered black and Hispanic voters in New York City.
To many black leaders, the significance of the voter-registration drive goes beyond this year's presidential election. Many black leaders hope they can mobilize their forces to find a minority candidate to challenge Mayor Koch in next year's mayoral election.
But it is not simply the prospect of toppling Mr. Koch or putting a Democrat in the White House that will energize the black vote, they say.
``I think Jesse is the biggest draw,'' says Carl McCall, the former New York finance chairman for the Jackson campaign, who now works for the Dukakis effort. ``People have taken their cues from Jesse. People see his personal involvement, and they feel if that's the next phase, that's where they want to be.''
Jackson spent two recent weekends in New York, drumming up support for Dukakis and the voter-registration drive. And while many blacks still feel Jackson was snubbed for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, black leaders say Jackson's personal endorsement of Dukakis will persuade the black community to vote for him.
``A lot of people say, `I don't like what happened to Jesse, so I'm not going to get involved,''' says Hulbert James, former New York campaign manager for Jackson and now the deputy campaign manager here for Dukakis. ``But as more and more people hear Jesse, I think the word will get out,'' he says, and people will register and vote.
Daniel Cantor, coordinator of the voter registration drive, agrees. ``There's not the kind of commitment yet to the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket that there was to Jesse,'' he says. But, Mr. Cantor adds, ``Jackson will move people. He may not move every single one, but enough to make a difference.''
Though Dukakis has recently scored points in the black community with promises of national health care and housing for the homeless, some black voters still think he's insensitive to their concerns.
``Black people are caught in a bind,'' says Andrew Cooper, publisher of City Sun, a Brooklyn-based independent black newspaper. ``They know the Republican party has nothing for them and pays no attention to them. And the Democrats take blacks for granted.''