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Politics Mondays: Will A 'Sit-Out' Be The Way To Send A Message? by Rod Watson


There's trouble brewing on the "plantation" - to use the term that Hillary Clinton borrowed from Newt Gingrich.

The Erie County Democratic Party's decision to bypass Antoine Thompson when trying to fill Mayor Byron W. Brown's old State Senate seat resurrected a perennial complaint: That the party courts black voters but often snubs black candidates seeking its endorsement.

This time, some disgusted Dems want to strike back: Instead of a sit-in, they want a "sit-out."

"Sit out the election as a form of protest," said School Board member Betty Jean Grant, referring to the Feb. 28 special election to temporarily fill the Senate seat.

Grant and others are upset that Democrats ignored what they see as precedent when whites moved from the Senate to the mayor's office and tapped their Senate successor. They say the rules changed now that an African-American is mayor and has backed Thompson, also an African-American, to replace him.

County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan disputes this, saying that past senators-turned-mayor never got to handpick their successors.

But even if the chairman is right, he has a problem inside his most loyal voting bloc - a problem that's sure to cheer Republicans and that could affect future elections.

The frustration bubbling up now has been brewing for years and goes beyond any single election.

"For them not to consider Antoine was an insult to our community," Willie Stewart of Community Voice said. "We just want to send a message to the Democratic Party that we are tired of being taken advantage of."

Despite perceived snubs that anger blacks - such as the refusal last fall to endorse City Judge James McLeod for State Supreme Court - the party has retained a virtual lock on the black vote.

That's what Gingrich was alluding to in 1994 when he said Democrats "think it is their job to run the plantation," a remark recalled when Clinton used the same word to describe the GOP-controlled House.

Samuel Herbert, who has run for office as a Democrat and a Republican at various times, also will sit out the Feb. 28 election. He said blacks need to view both parties warily "because they don't have our interests at heart."

Such wariness, if backed by action, could be bad news for Democrats.

Lenihan groans when told of a possible "sit-out," which Grant first mentioned on a radio show and which is spreading by word of mouth.

"That's crazy," the party chairman said. "We cleared the way for the election of the first African-American as mayor."

He contends that neither Jimmy Griffin nor Tony Masiello picked their Senate successors when they became mayor. He adds that Thompson - the Masten District member of the Common Council - got into the process late and that McLeod will "get his chance in the future."

"I run an open party," Lenihan said, pointing out that two of his five vice chairmen are black.

But he'll have a hard time convincing critics. Stewart said his group may leaflet, do mail drops and try to enlist ministers to spread the word.

With a huge Democratic enrollment advantage in the Senate district, it might not make much difference Feb. 28 when Delaware Council Member Marc Coppola, the Democrat, takes on School Board member Christopher Jacobs, the GOP contender.

Nevertheless, if the totals show a significant drop in turnout in black neighborhoods, the dissidents might scare the bejabbers out of party leaders - and gain critical leverage for future endorsements.

Grant notes the irony of blacks deliberately sitting out an election after the long struggle to win voting rights. But sometimes, she said, "you have to send a message."

Democrats better listen up.


Rod Watson can be reached at rwatson@buffnews.com. This Op-Ed appears in The Buffalo News.



Rod Watson

Monday, February 13, 2006

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