You Can’t Be Their Friend and Our Friend Too

By Sinclere Lee

With the battle for the Democratic nomination looming large for the Democratic candidates wanting to kick Bush out of the White House, one thing that Howard Dean and any other Democrats who want the Black vote in the “Dirty South” must understand; you can’t be their friend and our friend too. In other words, you cannot be the friend of racist white people in the South and expect to get the Black Vote. It’s counterintuitive!

For example, former Vermont governor Howard Dean came under a fierce attack from several of his Democratic rivals last week, who accused him of arrogance and insensitivity and demanded that he apologize for saying last week that he wanted to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

Dean, saying, "I'm no bigot," declined to apologize for the comment and told his rivals the Democrats will never recapture the White House until they find a way to appeal to working class white voters in the South. "I make no apologies for reaching out to poor whites," he said.

The fireworks included some of the toughest exchanges yet among the Democratic presidential candidates and came in the opening minutes of a candidate debate aimed at young voters and hosted by CNN and Rock The Vote. They were triggered by a pointed question from a young African American in the audience who said he was "extremely offended" by Dean's statement, which was made to an Iowa reporter last week.

In his defense, Dean invoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who he said talked of bringing together the children of slaveowners and the children of slaves. Dean said Republicans had used .racial issues to appeal to working class southerners for three decades and that it was time for Democrats to put a stop to it.

But barely were the words out of his mouth when Al Sharpton leaped into the fray. Last week Sharpton said Dean was embracing anti-black policies, and he escalated his criticism tonight. His voice rising, Sharpton called the Confederate flag "America's swastika," accused Dean of misquoting King and said of Dean's flag comment, "I think it is insensitive and you ought to apologize for it. You are not a bigot but you appear to be too arrogant to say 'I'm wrong.'"

When Dean again tried to defend himself, Sharpton dismissed him, saying he sounded more like "Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson" and accusing Dean of stereotyping southern whites by suggesting they all display the Confederate flag on their pickups.

Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) then indignantly called on Dean to apologize, and when Dean refused, Edwards said, "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need."

Former senator Carol Mosely Braun (Ill.) tried to bring down the temperature by urging Democrats to find a way to talk with civility about how to move past racism.

Dean got the last word, calling the Confederate flag "a loathsome symbol," and said he had proven he is without bigotry by signing a civil union bill as governor of Vermont. "I have had enough of campaigns based on fear," he said. "I want a campaign based on hope."

The 90-minute debate was the least conventional of the the candidate forums so far this fall, and the candidates tried their best to relate to the young audience in Boston's Faneuil Hall and on television. Edwards and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) showed up with open collars, while Dean and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) wore ties and shirtsleeves. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) work a mock turtleneck and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark was dressed in a black shirt and black jacket.

With Election Day one year away, the race for the Democratic nomination is mired in uncertainty.

While Dean is considered the frontrunner by his rivals, five other candidates are routinely polling near the top either nationally or in key early voting states. Moreover, polls show a majority of voters haven't tuned into the campaign and probably won't until sometime next year.

The race has turned more personal in recent weeks, with Dean getting hammered almost daily now by his rivals over everything from Medicare to the Confederate flag. Top aides to three of Dean's rivals -- Edwards, Kerry and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) -- are privately working together to deny Dean a key labor endorsement from the Service Employees International Union, which meets later this week to decide whether to endorse Dean. The SEIU is the largest union in the AFL-CIO.

The spat of recent debates -- this was the sixth in two months -- has done little to bring clarity to the race, and several Democrats are questioning the wisdom of holding so many debates with so many candidates on stage. In an interview published in Tuesday's Boston Herald, Sen. John Kerry's wife called the debates "silly."
I don't think it really helps the American people," said Teresa Heinz Kerry. "I don't think it helps the candidates." Several candidates and top aides have voiced similar concerns on background.

Tonight's debate offered the candidates a unique forum to connect with a very specific, albeit historically apathetic, audience: young voters.

Rock the Vote, a group formed during the 1992 election to draw young voters into the political process, cosponsored the town hall style forum with CNN. In 2000, less than one out of the every three eligible voters 24 years old and under voted.

Billed as "unpredictable, unscripted and uncensored," the event was designed for Baby Boom candidates to cut loose and show a hipper, more human side to a younger generation. The audience was packed with nearly 200 Democrats or Independents under 30, all of whom plan to vote but have not decided whom they'll back.

Gephardt was the only candidate to skip the event, citing a previously scheduled campaign stop in Iowa. "We're disappointed and think it's unfortunate," said Jehum Greene, executive director of Rock the Vote. In a recent poll of college undergraduates conducted by Harvard's Institute of Politics, the Missouri Democrat finished near the bottom. Lieberman with 17 percent and Dean with 16 percent were the top pick of these college students.

The youth vote is clearly up for grabs in 2004. The Harvard poll found college students are more supportive of Bush than the general public, but worried about the economy and Iraq. More than 60 percent approve of Bush's job performance.

The poll found Dean's younger supporters were the most committed, a finding reinforced by the large crowds of young voters who frequently flock to the Vermont Democrat's political rallies. Dean has plugged into many younger voters through the Internet, a popular communications tool for college-age students, and recently completed a tour of campuses. "They want authenticity," said Ben Coes of Harvard's Institute of Politics. "That's why Howard Dean is doing well."

Back to home page