O brother, where art thou?

Al Gore received a record turnout of black voters, but Gore insiders say the vice president went out of his way to avoid seeming too close to this key constituency.

By Tamala M. Edwards

Published December 19, 2000 10:58PM (EST)

Al Gore returns Tuesday from a short vacation in the Virgin Islands just in time to face a chorus of carping (How did he blow it? Could he really be more successful in 2004?). But while he was off making sand castles, the vanquished veep should at least have been expected to take a little comfort -- and hope -- from African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency that turned out to vote for him in record numbers.

And yet. Insiders say the Gore campaign's handling of the black community during the campaign -- and especially during the post-election period -- caused a series of slights, fights and feelings of betrayal. While his campaign poured millions over the last year into trying to appeal to swing voters, some of Gore's ground troops, backed up by furious black lawmakers, complained for months that the campaign was ignoring black voters. Money and time were finally invested, but late, not until weeks before Election Day.

Blacks, in a response that had more to do with powerful get-out-the-vote efforts of traditional black organizations, like the NAACP and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, and under the influence of a partisan black media, turned out for Gore in numbers that were dazzling: He took over 90 percent of the black vote, a feat to surpass even his predecessor Bill Clinton, beloved among blacks but whose numbers peaked in the high 80s.

Had Gore won, this might have turned into a tale of all's well that ends well. But as the election went into the contest phase, the battle between Gore and black leaders became even more pitched. Advisors say Gore had lost ground in Florida with two important voting blocs Clinton had made inroads with: seniors (an increasing number of Reagan Democrats are now flexing among the snowbirds) and Cuban-Americans. "If it weren't for blacks, there would have been no contest," says one senior Democratic strategist, noting that black turnout spiked from 10 percent of the total Florida vote in 1996 to 15 percent in 2000.

But while Gore and his campaign talked incessantly of recounts, butterfly ballots and chads, he did not mention black voter troubles until late in the contest, on Dec. 5, in response to a direct question at a press conference. Gore's decision not to bring or join legal action on behalf of Florida blacks alleging that their rights were violated on Election Day is largely understood by his critics. Voting rights cases take months to get resolved and usually yield relief only prospectively; with time a precious commodity, it was smart for the veep to pursue the speedier issue of recounts.

But why not at least pound the table and make the case for moral outrage, particularly in a country that still remembers the civil rights struggle for the vote? Gore staffers say the vice president didn't want to muddy his message and be seen as grabbing at every available straw. "Gore decided to be targeted and have an argument," says one senior aide. "You've got to choose your fights." As well, they say, Gore feared being accused of playing the race card. "He wanted to be very careful about the demagoguery and igniting something," says another senior operative.

Still, since the day after the election, black voters had stormed over serious allegations in black precincts: intimidating police roadblocks; voters denied ballots; voters wrongfully purged from voting rolls; Haitian immigrants denied translators and voters wrongly told polls were closed. But for nearly a month, the Gore campaign offered not even a token word of concern.

"The silence is defeaning," says NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. "You can't ignore your most loyal constituency."

Gore made, at best, a veiled reference to the plight of black voters in his concession speech. "I do have one regret -- that I didn't get the chance to stay and fight ... especially for those who need burdens lifted and barriers removed, especially those who feel their voices have not been heard," he said. Black leaders were unimpressed. And if Gore wants to know about barriers and burdens, he might find out firsthand should he try to court the black vote in 2004.

According to those both inside and outside the campaign, Gore fumbled this key constituency for months before Election Day. As the primaries ended, "swing" voters -- suburban, Midwestern, more conservative whites -- became prime targets. Gore's consultants, the top command controlling the money and message, channeled resources into blitzing these voters with commercials. But the ground troops worried that traditional Democratic constituencies, like labor and blacks, were suffering from neglect. Indeed, by late summer internal poll numbers were reflecting a problem: The vice-president only had 65 percent of the black community committed to going to the polls for him, numbers that were at least 10 to 15 points behind where they should have been.

Those numbers came out around the same time as Congressional Black Caucus weekend. Publicly, the focus was on Gore's visit to Howard University, a traditionally black institution of higher learning, and a laudatory visit to the caucus gala. But privately, when Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley and campaign manager Donna Brazile went to Capitol Hill for a meeting with black leaders, language was heated and the warnings were stark, as old lions like Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., gave the two an earful.

Still, it took the campaign until October to put money into black media and radio, with Brazile, who had plenty else to occupy her time, herself taking to writing radio scripts. As the late money came in, black leaders still sent up warnings, like Detroit minister Wendell Anthony, who told the campaign "don't play us" with late shows of support. Gore's campaign and the efforts of the Democratic National Committee were done hand-in-glove, and his problems with blacks were also the party's woes: Some of the funds came in so late from the DNC to black lawmakers to run coordinated campaigns that some, like Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., sent the donations back, saying there were no more radio spots available for his campaign to purchase and that it was also too late to print and circulate posters. About this time, a black congresswoman recalls, the caucus called the campaign to yell about the dearth of pictures of Gore with minorities.

"Clinton always had someone around. He had Ron [Brown], Vernon [Jordan], people from Arkansas with him, getting off the plane. Gore suffered from those around him and having no in-depth relationships with African-Americans," she says. "We said, 'You have no black people with you,' and they never listened. The campaign was getting a hit every day on television, and none of this was coming through. Gore hadn't connected and we had people in our districts walking around in a dream, asking, 'Is Clinton gonna run again?'"

If only they had known: While Bush regularly surrounded himself with black and Hispanic children, insiders say Gore consultants purposefully kept blacks out of the frame, arguing that swing voters needed to see Gore on stages and tarmacs with "real people" instead. "The fear was based on the fact that Gore was seen or viewed as liberal -- a racist stereotype professed by many in America -- and it would reinforce Gore's image as being too left by independent and swing voters," explains one Gore operative. The consultants and advance staff even tried to keep Bill Cosby, who had been personally invited on a fall campaign swing by Tipper Gore, from sharing the stage with Gore, instead hoping he would simply serve as the vice president's warm-up act before exiting the stage.

A similar conflagration grew out of the National Baptist Convention, an important meeting of black ministers in September. The vice president was scheduled to go, but Gore sources say campaign chairman Bill Daley yanked the visit, worried about the image of Gore in front of an overwhelmingly black audience. The case was made to Gore himself and Gore told some staffers he really thought he should go. And indeed, the veep did show up and address the convention -- via satellite.

One might argue that, considering the high black turnout, the consultants were vindicated in their tactics. Others see it differently; that Gore's black vote came through from both luck and harder work than was necessary. First, the black media -- a primary source of news for African-Americans -- was tenacious in reminding its audience of Bush's litany of slights: defending the Confederate flag; going to Bob Jones University; and gleefully supporting a death penalty disproportionately applied to Texas blacks. Old-line organizations like the NAACP, funded by an anonymous million-dollar donation specifically earmarked for turnout efforts, took up the charge. And the rhetoric ramped up as black leaders like Jackson held inner-city rallies in the campaign's final weeks.

Gore himself picked up on this tactic, adding a number of black churches to the last week of his schedule. But even though the effort worked, some insiders point to it as another example of how maladroit the campaign was in dealing with blacks.

A staffer notes that Gore appeared with traditional, mainline black leaders and communities, even though he had been frequently urged to broaden his black base. "Gore only went to middle-class black churches, and he only went there in the end," sighs the operative. "He was counseled to do off-the-records, just show up in the 'hood, go to the barbershop and kick it. That picture would have spoken volumes. We were able to scare people out in the end, but we wouldn't have had to do that."

Gore may have been mum during the contest phase, but much was being said inside the campaign about the face presented to the public. Early on, names of prominent black Florida lawyers familiar with voting rights, civil rights and equal protection case law like Willie Gary, Joseph Hatchett and Jesse McCray -- a former Florida secretary of state and obvious foil to Katherine Harris -- were sent up the Gore chain of command, to no avail. By the time the Gore team showed up for the first time in front of the Florida Supreme Court, a body that had two African-American judges, black lawmakers like Rep. Alcee Hastings (a former Florida judge) called the campaign, apoplectic over the all-white, all-male Gore legal bench. Three black lawyers were eventually added to the team and put on television, but sources say the damage was obvious to a candidate who was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on the issue of equal protection. "Why did David Boies walk into the courtroom and not know how to argue equal protection?" scoffs one Gore staffer.

Gore's silence, while perhaps strategic, is strange for more personal reasons. The infuriating stories struck close to home, with his campaign manager, Brazile, reporting that her own sister, who lives in Seminole County, Florida, was asked for more than the standard two forms of identification before she was allowed to vote. Still, the campaign never brought that up. And Gore had other, more personal connections to the issue of voting rights: In eulogizing his father in 1999, Gore lauded his father's courage, as a senator from Tennessee, in fighting for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - the very law that blacks in Florida claim was violated.

NAACP chairman Julian Bond publicly blasted Gore two weeks ago, while the contest still raged, on Black Entertainment Television, and still calls the Democrat's performance a "shame." Bond says a stung Gore called him to reassure him of his commitment to black voters' concerns. Yet the Friday before his concession, a white Gore staffer raised, during the daily staff morning conference call, the prospect of the vice president talking more about the problems of black Floridians. It still didn't make the day's talking points.

Some might contend that among blacks, Gore could still crush Bush, who received only a shocking 8 percent of the black vote, in 2004. But Bush is at least positioning himself to change that, appointing blacks to prominent power positions, with Colin Powell as the first black secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor.

"We would have never done that," says a Gore staffer of the high-profile appointments, guessing that a Gore administration would have placed blacks in less visible slots, like labor or transportation secretary.

But a more immediate problem for Gore would be any other Democrats in the race. Still, among blacks, he's set himself up for a hard job.

"The anger is there and it's going to be in black peoples' hearts for years to come," warns a senior black Democrat.

"He'd have to fight for my vote," confirms one disgruntled black congresswoman. "And it won't be easy."

Tamala M. Edwards

Tamala Edwards covered the Gore campaign as a staff writer for Time Magazine.

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