Politics Mondays: Big Pimpin' the Black Vote By Faye M. Anderson

In recent weeks, a media firestorm has erupted over the Partnership for America's Families headed by Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's former political director. The new organization plans to spend $30 million on a massive voter registration and voter mobilization campaign targeting African Americans, Latinos and working women.

Some have called Steve Rosenthal a "self-appointed messiah" and vowed to resist efforts to push aside affiliated groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement in favor of an instant organization with no track record and no relationship with the black or Latino community.

Now, I don't have a dog in the fight over the Partnership for America's Families but I do know most of the players. And in the spirit of full disclosure, both the AFL-CIO and CBTU made contributions to complete a documentary on the 2000 Florida presidential election that I wrote and produced. The film tells the underreported story of the role that organized labor and black voter empowerment groups played in the record 72 percent turnout of black voters.

Since last November, I have been gathering information for a video that debunks the 'big lie' that "Republicans owed their successes to a marked decline in African American and Latino voting." To compare turnout in 2002 with 2000 is akin to comparing apples with oranges. The reason: turnout is higher for all voter groups in a presidential election. With the collapse of the Voter News Service, there is no reliable nationwide data on who showed up on Election Day.

The data that are available show that black turnout was on par with turnout in 1998, the last midterm election. Then as now, blacks were blamed for Democratic losses. Tellingly, the Census Bureau later found that "African Americans were the only racial or ethnic group to defy the trend of declining voter participation in congressional elections, increasing their presence from 37 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 1998."

Some facts. Black voters in Birmingham and Montgomery turned out in higher than expected numbers, according to political scientists at the University of Alabama and Alabama State University. Republican Congressman Bob Riley beat Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman by 3,117 votes out of 1.3 million cast. Prof. Byrdie Larkin of Alabama State University told the Associated Press that black voters prevented Riley from winning in a landslide as was predicted before the election.

While black turnout in California was an anemic 4 percent of the statewide electorate (down from 13 percent in 1998), their preferred candidate, the embattled and unpopular Gov. Gray Davis, won reelection. Truth be told, blacks didn't rush to vote for Davis in part because he vetoed legislation that would have required measuring racial profiling by police. Davis also failed to invest much of his $65 million campaign war chest in a get-out-the-vote operation.

Then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones reported that 44.8 percent of the state's registered voters went to the polls, a historic low. Jones told the Associated Press, "The largest constituency that spoke out yesterday [Election Day] are the ones that stayed home."

In Florida, black voter turnout was about 43 percent compared with 27 percent in 1998. In some predominantly black precincts in South Florida, turnout was more than 60 percent, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox issued a Credit for Voting Report that revealed that black turnout "was nearly unchanged" between 1998 and 2002. "In the 1998 gubernatorial election African Americans comprised 22.86 percent of those who cast ballots. Four years later that percentage was down only slightly, to 22.60 percent," said Cox in a press release.

Still, the New York Times reported that blacks, who represent 27 percent of Georgia's voting-age population, provided nearly 450,000 - about 48 percent of then-Gov. Roy Barnes' statewide vote total of 933,062.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, turnout in St. Louis and Kansas City was up 35 percent from 1998. The St. Louis American reported a 20 percent increase in black voter turnout over the last midterm election. In losing to Jim Talent, Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) received 83,000 more votes than Republican Sen. Kit Bond did in winning reelection in 1998.

The News & Observer (North Carolina) reported that turnout in some majority-black precincts in Raleigh and Durham was higher than in 1998. In South Carolina, nearly 285,000 blacks showed up last November, 3,000 more than in the 1998 midterm election. This is reportedly a record turnout for an off-year election.

And in the mother of all turnout battles, black voters enabled Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to withstand the Republicans' best shot in the Louisiana senate runoff election. The good times rolled on in Louisiana's 5th congressional district, where the high black voter turnout boosted Democrat Rodney Alexander to victory over Republican Lee Fletcher. Fletcher was favored to win in a district that President Bush won in 2000 and where he enjoyed a 70 percent approval rating.

The bottom line: Black voters were in the house in the 2002 midterm elections. The supporters of the Partnership for America's Families must look elsewhere to assign blame for what happened. One place worth checking out is the AFL-CIO's web site. There, he will find a transcript of John Sweeney's post-election briefing during which he remarked, "[T]he Democrats needed to be crystal clear about what they stand for, and to present an alternative vision to the country that creates excitement among disenfranchised voters and inspires hope. They weren't able to do that."

Faye M. Anderson is the writer and producer of "Counting on Democracy." She can be reached at andersonatlarge@aol.com.

Monday, June 9, 2003