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Some Black Voters View Gore as the Lesser of Two Evils

By Terry M. Neal, the Washington Post,
Sunday , October 29, 2000 ; Page A24

CHICAGO -- Here in the economic heart of black Chicago, along 79th Street on the South Side, Margo Evans and Tony Banks sit in the back of an African art and fabrics store--customers strolling in and out--contemplating the presidential election.

Both plan to vote, but they are hardly excited about it. They agree that neither candidate has spent much time addressing issues of particular concern to African Americans, and that Vice President Gore is looking better each day if for no other reason than George W. Bush has diminished so greatly in their eyes.

Gore is counting on black voters like them in the industrial, battleground states to help put him over the top in the presidential contest against Bush. How many of those voters go to the polls could make the difference in states such as Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Bush's ambitions are more modest: He wants to do a few percentage points better than previous Republican presidential candidates or at a minimum defuse the anger at Republicans that has often driven black voters to the polls.

Interviews with 20 black likely voters indicate that both candidates could have trouble meeting their goals. While 20 interviews in one city hardly counts as a scientific poll, the similarity of their responses is problematic for both men.

"Well, Gore's better than Bush," said Evans, 64. "But he's no Bill Clinton. That's for sure. If you gave us a chance, most of us would vote for Clinton for a third term. This is going to be kind of like voting for the lesser of two evils."

The phrase "lesser of two evils" was the common denominator in the interviews. Is the seeming ambivalence of politically aware, middle-class people like Evans and Banks a bad sign for Gore? If they are barely motivated to vote, what about their poorer, less politically aware neighbors in the sprawling, poor to working-class communities south and west of downtown Chicago?

The interviews show complex feelings that are not reflected in polls, such as the one released last week by the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. It showed Gore's favorability among blacks increasing 17 points to 86 percent since last year, while Bush's has declined 14 points to 29 percent.

David Bositis, the center's senior political analyst, said Gore solidified his black support by stating his unequivocal support for affirmative action and his commitment to ending racial profiling by police. Bush faltered by offering what some black voters perceived as a contrived convention in which minorities were featured while issues of concern were ignored.

"Gore has done what he needed to do," said Bositis. "He needed to let black Americans know that he's going to continue along the same policies as the Clinton administration. At this point, he's indistinguishable from Clinton."

But the toughest thing for polls to measure is intensity of support, which probably explains some of the difference in the views of Bositis and Evans. In Chicago last week, not one of the likely voters expressed anything close to the level of enthusiasm for Gore that the center's poll suggests should be there.

While only one person said she planned to vote for Bush (a few declined to answer or said they were still undecided), several said they would vote for Gore for no other reason than that they could not stand Bush. Most also said they believed Gore probably would continue the same policies as Clinton, but they said they were turned off by his efforts to distance himself from the president, who remains the most popular politician--black or white--among African Americans.

No one knows how this will translate on Election Day, but it does at least raise the question of whether Gore has generated the enthusiasm he needs among the Democrats' most loyal constituency.

"I just don't see any momentum there," said store manager Banks, shaking his head. But then, citing Texas's death penalty record and its relatively poor record on children's health care, he added: "I'll vote against Bush based on his Texas record alone."

Community activist Wallace "Gator" Bradley, a south-side resident who works for a group combating gang violence, put it this way: "It's the deadest presidential election that I've ever seen. There's no rah-rah."

Several people said that until recently, neither the Gore campaign nor the Democrats had made much of an effort to woo the community. But recently, Jesse L. Jackson has stepped up his efforts, as has the local NAACP. And at a news conference last Monday, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan urged black Chicagoans to vote, although he declined to endorse anyone.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has begun buying ads in excess of $1 million on black radio to bolster Bush and other Republicans by focusing on issues such as school vouchers (which blacks support at a higher rate than whites) and small-business creation.

A couple of people in Chicago said the message they were getting from Democratic leaders was not so much that Gore was great on the issues but that Bush was horrible and that a vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nadar was tantamount to a vote for Bush.

"In the community, they're being scared into believing that Gore is the better candidate," said Bradley, who said he is undecided on whether to vote for Gore or Ralph Nader. "They keep saying if Bush wins, all hell is going to break lose. They talk about how he likes the death penalty. But they forget that Gore supports the death penalty, too."

Many said they got the impression that Democrats were focused on courting white, suburban women--and to a lesser extent, Latinos--almost to the exclusion of blacks.

While some voters said they were grateful for Gore's statements on affirmative action and racial profiling, they said a host of issues had been ignored.

Among those issues are the sentencing disparity for possession of powdered cocaine--used primarily by whites--and crack cocaine-- more prevalent in black communities. Along similar lines, many blacks have grown increasingly frustrated with disparities in the application of the death sentence, which studies have shown blacks are more likely to get than whites for similar crimes.

Some of black America's prominent media figures, including nationally syndicated radio personality Tom Joyner, have taken Gore to task for ignoring these issues. In an interview on Oct. 4, the day after the first presidential debate in Boston, Gore told Joyner that he did not bring up those issues because debate moderator Jim Lehrer did not ask about them. He promised to say more in the next two debates. But other than a sharp exchange with Bush in the last debate over affirmative action in which Gore forced Bush into a vague, bumbling answer, the vice president largely dropped the ball, many blacks say.

BET commentator Tavis Smiley said in an interview last week on CNBC's "Rivera Live," "As far as I am concerned, Bush, in Texas, is nothing more than a serial killer. But we can't expect that much more out of Gore."

Gore campaign officials insisted that they had not taken black voters for granted, noting that the campaign has been running radio spots featuring Gore talking about such topics as affirmative action and racial profiling since the end of September on black radio in battleground states. And this week Congressional Black Caucus members will begin a fly-around to four battleground states--Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee.

"We certainly hope that African American voters are going to be motivated by Al Gore's vision," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said. "The differences between Gore and Bush couldn't be more clear."

Nonetheless, said Bridgette McCullough, a 35-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago: "The Democrats used to talk about civil rights. I was in the sixth grade when Jimmy Carter ran. I was so excited. Part of it was because my parents were excited. Now it almost seems a liability to bring up black people."

2000 The Washington Post

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