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''All-American'' Debate Reveals Stratified Black Constituency
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Editor-in-Chief
Originally posted 7/3/2007

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The All-American Presidential Forum held at Howard University last week not only showcased domestic issues of interest to African-Americans, but has also revealed a Black constituency that, although admires Sen. Barack Obama, is clearly stratified in its support for several candidates.

“My favorite candidate at this point is still John Edwards. I think that his views are most aligned with mine and he presented himself very well,” says Dr. Rochelle Ford, a Howard University advertising and journalism professor, who attended the debate.
At the same time, Ford, like other members of the vastly Black audience interviewed as they pressed their way out of Howard’s Crampton Auditorium, also held a special allegiance to Sen. Barack Obama.

The loan Black candidate, Obama has reached rock star fame as he runs neck-in-neck with Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
“I am an Obama supporter. I’d love to see an Obama-Edwards ticket,” says Ford. She says she did an online test to see which candidate’s views most aligned with hers.

“John Edwards was number one and Obama was number two…And so, a president-vice president kind of thing I think would work.”

The string of issues presented at last week’s energetic forum, moderated by Tavis Smiley on PBS, was vast and refreshing to political observers who had cleared tired debates that almost solely featured discussions about the war in Iraq and immigration issues. The issues discussed were mostly issues from Smiley’s best-selling “Convenant With Black America” and “The Covenant in Action”.

The Supreme Court decision on the consideration of race in school desegregation, wage disparities, public education, racial profiling, mandatory minimum sentences, AIDS/HIV in the Black community, the death penalty, crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities, jobs and Hurricane Katrina relief were among the issues directly addressed or mentioned during the forum.

Obama, who has demonstrated that he may be at his best as a keynote in front of large crowds, drew screams and cheers as he stepped out onto the stage in front of the 1,500 standing-room only crowd and millions watching by television in the U.S. and abroad. Earlier, he and his wife, Michele, could hardly press through the crowd of well-wishers at a PBS reception just before the debate.

But, it was Sen. Hilary Clinton who drew the loudest cheers and applause when she hit home with people in the audience who have tired of national news attention to the personal lives of White starlets.

''If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of White women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,'' Clinton said as the audience stood to their feet with applause and Black women cheered.

A Gallup poll taken a week before the debate showed Clinton and Obama running neck in neck among prospective Black voters, both with favorable views by about 8-to-1 margins over the rest of the candidates. The survey was based on a telephone survey of 802 Blacks with a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

Also, this week, the Federal Election Commission reports that Obama has surpassed Clinton’s fundraising by $10 million during the second quarter of their filing requirements, Obama with at least $31 million and Clinton with $21 million for the primary.

Despite the “Run Obama Run!” fever apparently growing across the U. S., Black constituents and leaders are supporting various candidates.

“I am a national co-chair for Sen. Clinton,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), proudly announces in an interview after the debate.
Lee says it is healthy that the Black community is stratified.

“That’s excellent. America is diverse and the African-American community cannot be perceived as monolithic and it should not be taken for granted,” she says. “We are fighting for every single vote that we possibly can. I happen to believe that I have a candidate of her own accord that has a deep understanding or works to have a deeper understanding about community.”

Lee said Clinton “connects” with Black audiences because of her views on the issues. “She will make history and we are proud of the other candidates who are making history as well – an African-American, talented; a Hispanic, committed and dedicated and talented and all others.”

Candidates participating in the debate were Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware; Clinton of New York; Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut; former Sen. John Edwards of South Carolina; former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; Obama of Illinois and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

Smiley, who organized the debate after seeing that there were few domestic issues in the presidential discourse, told the NNPA News Service before the debate that people would particularly watch Obama for his perspectives.

“They’re really curious to see whether or not he’s going to step up on issues that matter to us when he’s in front of us at Howard, being questioned by us. How is he going to respond?” Smiley said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), an Obama supporter, says he was delighted at the range of issues that were discussed and was surprised that some issues had taken so long to be put on the table.

“This was the first time they discussed education and I was shocked,” he said. “This just goes to show you why it’s so important that you have African-American folks asking questions and people that are sensitive to our issues.”

Among the energetic applause for Obama, whose Black father is from Kenya and White mother is from Kansas, was his identification with often asked questions in the Black community, concerning America’s relationship with Africa.

“What are we doing with respect to trade opportunities with Africa? What are we doing in terms of investments in Africa? What are we doing to pay attention to Africa consistently with respect to our foreign policy? That has been what’s missing in the White House,” he said to loud applause.
But, at the end of the forum, many in the responsive audience were still undecided.

“I’m still looking,” says Christopher Emanuel, who works in the Office of Civil Rights for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Hillary said what she had to say in order to get where she had to go. Biden, well, that’s flat-line right there. Gravel, he speaks the truth. I like the things he’s saying, but he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. So, all I see is style and little substance.”

Stephanie Logan, who graduated from Howard in May, says she had hoped to better distinguish between the candidates during the debate, but that didn’t work.

“Nobody really grabbed me to be honest,” says Logan. “I feel like they were all saying the same thing. When it comes down to it, unfortunately in politics, while they all have these wonderful ideas - and I believe they do want to make a change - but there’s so much theocracy that I wonder if they’ll even be able to do it. I wish somebody would ask them, ‘How are you going to do it though?’

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a former Democratic presidential contender who drew applause when he walked into the auditorium, didn’t seem impressed either.

“I thought the candidates were adequate. I’ll tell you where I was disappointed. I didn’t hear any specifics on, especially the [Supreme Court] decision today on [race and educaton.]. ‘What kinds of Supreme Court Justices would I appoint? What would I be looking for?’”

Noting Clinton’s quip concerning the attention given to White women, Sharpton says, “That was good. I wish I had heard more of that from the candidates.”

Sharpton was less complimentary of Obama. “I think he did good. I don’t think he hurt himself tonight.”

Smiley and political analysts around the country have predicted that the more domestic issues are discussed, the candidates will increasingly vie for the Black vote, which will likely be pivotal in the general election in November 2008.

“This should be repeated and repeated and we should be out in the corn fields, if you will,” says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. “We should be out in the urban centers. We should be out in the churches. We should be out in the schools. America has to have its trust restored in this election and they’ve got to see the candidates.”

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