Non-Native Son

The stakes could not have been higher for John Kerry as he appeared before the NAACP's 95th annual convention in Philadelphia on July 15. In the few months prior, his campaign had been the subject of sharp criticisms from prominent black leaders throughout the country. In May, Donna Brazile chided Kerry for not including enough African Americans in his campaign's highest rungs. And, on the same day as Kerry's NAACP speech, members of the Congressional Black Caucus went public with their collective disappointment over his $2 million black-media blitz.

This was Kerry's chance to put those criticisms to rest. President Bush had just snubbed the group by declining an invitation to speak, and this was Kerry's moment to steal. Well aware of the criticisms he faced, he tried to convince the crowd that he feels their pain. "When I look around neighborhoods and towns and cities across this nation, I see exactly what so many of you see every day, and what some of our leaders in Washington seem to be blinded to. I see jobs to be created for all Americans. I see families to house. I see violence to stop. And I see children to teach and children to care for."

Kind words, and they were met with a rousing ovation. But beyond his careful rhetoric, Kerry is struggling so far to connect with black audiences and hasn't yet generated the kind of enthusiasm for his candidacy that one would expect in such a polarized political moment. A BET/CBS News poll of African American voters conducted shortly before his NAACP speech found that most black voters had only lukewarm feelings for Kerry, most respondents claiming mere "satisfaction" with his presence atop the national ticket.

This, partly, is a problem of comportment -- and, inevitably, comparison to you-know-who. Kerry's stolid personality stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton's exuberant charisma. But beyond personality, Kerry's relationship with black voters can be understood as the product of a lifetime spent navigating his way through Bay State politics. Unlike Clinton, who had to work the black areas of Arkansas hard to succeed at the state level, Kerry has never had to assiduously court the black vote. Massachusetts, after all, is only 4 percent black. "Even as Kerry runs for national office," said James Glaser, a political-science professor at Tufts University outside Boston, "his political instincts and sensitivities naturally reflect that of a white Democrat from Massachusetts."

Kerry's political fortunes have never before hinged on black voters, but this November, they very well might. Could his greenness with the black vote jeopardize his run for the White House?

TO BE SURE, African Americans are unified behind the Democratic ticket. In all likelihood, Kerry will meet or surpass Al Gore's 90 percent share of the black vote in 2000. The question, however, is not what proportion of the black electorate opts for Kerry. Rather, to succeed, Kerry must generate a turnout that exceeds that of the 2000 election, particularly in Missouri and Florida.

A Democratic double whammy in those two states would all but seal the election for Kerry. The 2000 election in Missouri was decided by just 3 percentage points, or about 79,000 votes. That year, 86,000 registered voters from predominately black precincts in Kansas City and St. Louis failed to make it to the polls on election day. A higher turnout solely among registered black voters could have tipped that state for Gore.

In Florida, the black voting-age population is more than 1.5 million people. In 2000, turnout of black registered voters was nearly 60 percent. That's a high number, but it still means that more than 600,000 registered African Americans didn't vote in 2000. If Kerry could inspire but a fraction of this remaining 40 percent, he could very well take Florida -- and the rest of the country with it.

David Bositis, a senior research assistant with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, believes that Kerry can inspire a large turnout and argues that his perceived problems in attracting black voters are just that -- perceived. "I'm not a 'seems to be' person," Bositis said at the start of our conversation. "I go by the numbers." Bositis published an exhaustive survey of black voting trends in both the 2000 election and in this year's primaries. In primary states with a large African American population, Bositis found that Kerry's share of the black vote averaged 10 percent higher than that of his white vote. "John Kerry was the overwhelming choice of black voters in the primaries," Bositis told me. "He won a plurality of the black vote in every primary except South Carolina. In Georgia, the primary that effectively sealed Kerry's victory, he received 61 percent of the black vote."

Then, of course, there's the argument that black turnout will be driven not chiefly by Kerry but by the other guy. Fresh from the convention and enthusiastic about his party's prospects, Chaka Fattah, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Philadelphia, relayed to me his confidence that black anxiety and frustration with George W. Bush will inspire black voters to rush to the polls. "Bush is so far out of the mainstream," he said. "That will drive turnout."

Fattah also senses that pieces of a massive election-day ground war are falling into place, such as the work of the liberal "527s" like America Coming Together (ACT) that are at the forefront of get-out-the-vote efforts nationwide. In Missouri and Florida, ACT has undertaken one of the largest African American voter registration drives in those states' histories. "We are going into black precincts, knocking on doors, and letting voters know we care about their issues," said Joy-Ann Reid, a spokeswoman for ACT Florida.

Still, there's one thing that even the best GOTV operations can't substitute for: the presence of the candidate himself. As one local organizer told me, "He needs to come down to Florida's black communities, talk to some of our smaller neighborhood associations, identify some local opinion leaders, and just sit down with us for a while. It's nothing special, but a little get-to-know-you session would make a whole lot of people feel better about voting."

The need for Kerry to personalize his relationship with the black community is a sentiment heard across a broad spectrum of black voters. He has yet to show any originality, for example, in reaching out to young blacks, who are by far the most politically independent group of black voters. Only 50 percent to 60 percent of African Americans aged 18 to 25 identify themselves as Democrats. "This is a figure that should shock Kerry into action," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

There is, however, a brewing political consciousness among young black people. But so far Kerry has done little to tap into it. "He just hasn't reached out to the movement yet," said Jeffrey Johnson, the vice president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a nonpartisan coalition of entertainers, civil-rights advocates, and youth leaders. In referring to the popular music-video program on Black Entertainment Television, Johnson continued, "Something as simple as Kerry appearing on 106 and Park, not necessarily to give a speech but to have a dialogue and listen to young people's concerns -- that would make a huge impression."

While Kerry's problems in exciting African American voters are partly stylistic and born of African Americans' general lack of acquaintance with him, part of it is also policy -- and here, at least, he seems to be improving. In July, prominent black politicians and academics sounded complaints that Kerry lacked a defined urban agenda. Among others, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick expressed concern that Kerry was failing to address urban issues with the kind of specificity that relays to voters an empathetic concern for the problems of poverty and violence that plague inner cities. To his credit, Kerry heeded these calls, and in his July 22 address to the Urban League, the candidate laid out a clear urban policy that spoke in detail about the federal programs his administration would expand to meet the needs of the inner cities.

Kerry's progress on this front is a hopeful sign, and reflective of what one African American who worked on Kerry's 1984 and 1990 Senate campaigns told me about Kerry's relationship with black voters: "I know John. Once you tell him something, he gets it."

In an election as hard-fought as this one, he'd better.

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