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African Americans' disaffection with Democrats growing

By Recardo Gibson

ST. LOUIS—The Democrats’ 40-year stronghold over the African American vote could be weakening. A recent survey conducted by Black America’s Political Action Committee showed 43 percent of African Americans surveyed say that they feel they are taken for granted by the Democrats.


In what is projected to be a close presidential race, this voting block may hold the key to the White House.

The Rev. Al Sharpton first brought the issue to national attention in the Democratic primary presidential debates. Sharpton openly criticized his party for taking the black vote for granted and vocalized the disappointment many feel toward the Democrats.

The Republicans appear eager to seize the opportunity to court the black vote. Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie told one newspaper that the Republicans are launching a major campaign to make some headway within the African American community. They have a goal of winning 25 percent of the black vote this fall. Gillespie predicted the GOP will make significant progress with African American voters (a task not many Republican presidential candidates in recent memory have been able to accomplish).

The Republicans have an arduous task ahead of them. President Bush’s stance on issues like affirmative action, and his record on the economy could serve as a deterrent to potential black voters. The political action committee also indicated that 52 percent of the African Americans surveyed said the GOP ignores the black community completely.

William Sampson, DePaul University public policy professor, stated his amazement that this figure was so low. Sampson asserted that the figure should be higher because the Republicans have a long history of ignoring blacks.

Chris Garrett, director of the Grass Roots Program for the Republican National Committee, dismissed the program’s critics. Garrett said that the Republican Party has been “aggressively recruiting African Americans to run for office and participate in the process.”

Garrett also explains that the Republican National Committee has been “[organizing] team events and going into African American communities ... trying to get people involved in the local Republican Party.”

The theme for this presidential election looks to be “energizing your base.” But according to Professor Sampson, no one really is going to energize the black community. “Courting the black vote is risky,” he says. “It will alienate others that are not directly affected by [urban issues like] poverty and drugs.” Citing Sharpton as the case in point, Sampson asserted that Sharpton’s message did not resonate with voters because, “he turned off a lot of people.”

Notwithstanding, the Democrats have taken umbrage at what this poll implies. “African Americans are the most loyal group of Democrats the party has. We can’t take one single vote for granted. And we won’t,” vowed Democratic National Committee press secretary Tony Welch.

The New African American Voter

Leviticus Turner, a 24-year-old African American female and second-generation college graduate from Chicago, defines herself as an Independent and was a self-described Democrat until 2000. When asked what prompted the switch she responded, “I don’t just vote on party lines anymore. I used to. Although I was never, explicitly, told to vote Democratic, it was implied: That’s what black people do. But now, I look at each candidate individually.”

Turner is not alone in this trend that sees African Americans moving toward the status of Independent voters. The Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies, in another poll, revealed that 24 percent of African Americans identify themselves as Independents, and 10 percent as Republicans, each up from 2000. The poll went on to show that the number of blacks voting Democratic in the 2002 election was 63 percent, down from 2000. This survey suggested that many black Democrats are rethinking their political affiliation.

Although Turner is open to voting for a Republican, she said won’t vote for Bush. Turner pointed to the economy as the main reason why she is seeking another option.

The Economy

The economy will be the administration’s toughest selling point to African Americans. The rate of unemployment for African Americans is twice the national average. Jobs and the economy top the list of concerns for African Americans from the political action committee’s survey. Conversely, Sen. John Kerry’s economic plan seems to be gaining support within black communities, which have been devastated by the loss of jobs.

“Given the fact that there is no economic recovery. Blacks will not vote for Bush in the numbers that (the Republicans) think,” said Sampson. “If the choice is to vote for one that ignores you or one that takes you for granted, the option for some blacks will be to stay at home.”

Welch disagrees: “One of the things we’ve noticed is African Americans know that there is too much riding on this election to stay at home.”

Felix Lloyd, a 65-year-old consultant for Future View International, says that in 1974 he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, saying the inconsistency within the Democratic Party was the reason.

“The Republicans are clear about what they want,” Lloyd says. He maintains that access to capital is the chief concern for African Americans, but the Democrats do not address it enough. “Blacks need to build capital and the Republicans are giving us a chance with programs like the president’s Faith Based Initiative.”

Welch acknowledged some of the shortfalls of his party: “There is no one claiming the Democrats are perfect. We are not going to stop working. Our relationship (with African Americans) is not an election-year alliance. It goes back decades.”

With a lot riding on this election, it will not be unusual to see both parties call on the African American community for support. Many African Americans are seeking alternative options to what they have called “Democratic complacency.”

Whether African Americans’ dissatisfaction will manifest in votes for the Republicans remains to be seen.

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