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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 key constituency.

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 okey-dokey."

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] rating."

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 now."

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 session.

"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, whatever."

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