Lieberman Stirs Concern Among Blacks
By Thomas B. Edsall and Hamil R. Harris,
in The Washington Post,
Tuesday, 15 August 2000; A01
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 14 Al Gore's presidential campaign
today began an effort to counter emerging resistance to vice
presidential nominee Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman among some African
American Democrats, who have questioned his stands on affirmative
action and education and suggested he may cost the party support in a
The campaign has assigned Labor Secretary
Alexis M. Herman and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) to defuse
black reaction to Lieberman's support in 1998 for California's
Proposition 209, which banned state-funded affirmative action
programs, and his endorsement of state-funded vouchers allowing
parents to move children from public to private schools.
In what party officials described as a potentially crucial encounter,
Lieberman has agreed to appear before the Democratic National
Committee's black caucus on Tuesday in a bid to reassure African
American congressmen and delegates.
Today, a session of the
DNC's black caucus was abruptly halted by Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.)
after questions about Lieberman's record began to dominate the
discussion. "This is not a press conference, this is an issues
conference," Watt, a Gore loyalist, said.
The Gore campaign has
asked black leaders to mute questions about Lieberman until the
campaign can prepare a full-scale presentation on the vice
presidential pick for the African American community. Many senior
black Democratic leaders have endorsed Lieberman, including Jesse
Jackson and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume.
But the campaign
failed to reach one of the most outspoken members of the Congressional
Black Caucus, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif). In a rally Sunday in
south-central Los Angeles, Waters said blacks "have some questions now
that Gore has chosen a vice presidential candidate. We have questions
about affirmative action, we have questions about the criminal justice
system and we have questions about education and vouchers."
In the DNC meeting of black Democrats here today, Waters renewed her
criticism when the question of Lieberman came up. "We want to win,
but we don't want to win at any cost," she said. "There are
significant unresolved issues. I'm not going to buy the
Norton quickly stepped in to defend Lieberman: "To his credit, he does not
support wholesale vouchers," she said. "He has a 90 percent ADA
[Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group]
Norton then warned that focusing on the California
affirmative action issue and school vouchers threatens to undermine
crucial black support for the Gore-Lieberman ticket: "I have my
difficulties with Lieberman, but if we go off on a single issue, we
lose the whole ballgame," she said.
Black voters are a crucial
Democratic constituency, with more than 90 percent backing the party's
nominees in recent elections. This loyalty makes high turnout levels
among African Americans a key to Democratic victory.
Gore is already struggling to bring his support levels among core Democratic
constituencies up to the high percentages his opponent, Texas
Gov. George W. Bush, has among core Republicans.
The concern over Lieberman's public record has emerged against the
backdrop of sustained tensions between parts of the black and Jewish
political communities. Several black spokesmen outside the party,
including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, have been sharply
critical of the Lieberman choice in recent days, raising questions
about Lieberman's Jewish identity and his support for Israel.
On Sunday, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Lieberman defended his
stand on the California proposition banning affirmative action,
saying, "I didn't go out there and campaign for it. But at that time,
I and a lot of others were raising questions about whether some
affirmative action programs had become quotas."
The specific language of Proposition 209 declared, "The state shall not
discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any
individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or
national origin in the operation of public employment, public
education or public contracting."
Lieberman said the issue of
equality is central to his political career. But, he said, he "began
at that time to question whether quotas were an acceptable way to
achieve equal opportunity." After President Clinton ended a review of
affirmative action programs by supporting a "mend it, don't end it"
approach and the Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas, he said,
"basically, I think we are just about where we should be
Today, Gore backers struggled to find a way to explain
Lieberman's support for the California referendum while arguing that
he supports affirmative action.
Promoters of the referendum used
"civil rights language to make it sound like it would not dismantle
civil rights progress," Herman said. Lieberman made the statement of
support "without knowing the full impact . . . he did not understand
the intent of Proposition 209."
The problems among African
American Democrats raised by Lieberman's positions were reflected in
interviews with delegates and activists attending the DNC black caucus
"I'm still cloudy on a few issues. I don't know where
he stands on affirmative action. There are a lot of answers we need,"
said a concerned Natasha Robinson, 21, of Waldorf, Md.
"It's a problem for me. I am from Oakland. I'll be applying to law
school next year and I'm afraid it's going to lessen my chances,"
said 20-year-old Venus Johnson. Asked what Lieberman's stands mean for
her vote, Johnson said, "It's a tough call. Sometimes you have to
vote for the lesser of two evils, or the evil of two lessers,