Monday, October 11, 2004

Among Black Voters, a Fervor to Make Their Ballots Count

The New York Times
October 11, 2004

Among Black Voters, a Fervor to Make Their Ballots Count

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Her bus was coming, but Charlotte Marshall had not yet finished talking about what mattered to her in the election. Social Security and health insurance, definitely. The Vietnam War, absolutely not. And she had still more to say.

The campaign for president has entered its final leg crackling with rare energy on the streets, in workplaces and in homes, perhaps with no greater vigor than among black Americans like Mrs. Marshall, who works for Stein Mart, a discount store.

It was nearly time for Mrs. Marshall to board, so she spoke quickly, definitively and passionately about the bleakness of Iraq. Finally, she turned to the voting process.

No matter whom she ends up choosing - maybe Senator John Kerry, said Mrs. Marshall, or perhaps President Bush, to untangle his Iraqi knot - she will work Election Day as a poll watcher. "What happened in 2000 got me into it," she said.

Like Mrs. Marshall, many African-Americans are speaking about the fundamental act of voting this year with rekindled fervor, throwing a high-wattage backlight behind the issues and personalities of the campaign. The disqualified ballots, excluded voters and contentious ending of the 2000 election - when black precincts in Florida had votes rejected at three times the rate of white precincts - have formed a galvanizing memory. "We feel betrayed," said Rod Owens, 22, a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. "We're looking for revenge."

Mr. Owens, active in a young Democrats group on his campus, put the matter more bluntly than most, but the determination to vote and make it count appears to cross boundaries of age, class and geography. African-Americans, for four decades the most reliable reservoir of Democratic support in presidential elections, now are also part of a torrent of new voter registrations in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and elsewhere.

[Aware of how essential black voters' turnout is for his campaign, Mr. Kerry attended services yesterday at two black churches in Florida. With the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton at his side, he told worshipers at his second stop, a Baptist church in Miami, that he had a team of lawyers, led by African-Americans, poised to respond to any charges of disenfranchisement. "We have an unfinished march in this nation," he said, invoking the civil rights struggle.]

Here in Jacksonville, as the Oct. 4 registration deadline approached, new voters in black neighborhoods were signing up at a pace two-thirds faster than in 2000. In Philadelphia, election officials report the greatest surge of registrations in 21 years, resulting in more than 70,000 new voters added to the rolls since April, with growth heaviest in African-American sections. In Ohio, new registrations in Democratic strongholds, many of them African-American areas, have increased 250 percent over 2000.

In interviews here in north Florida, in southwest Philadelphia and elsewhere, at bus stops, on porches, in sleek law offices, some two dozen African-American voters spoke about the broad band of issues that define their personal stakes in this campaign: the war in Iraq and what it means to a son or grandson in the military; the economy and how it shapes a bricklayer's week; the tax code and its effect on an independent businessman's prospects; and the seats of aging Supreme Court justices, watched warily by a generation of business executives, many of whom began their climb to prosperity in a society freshly opened by the federal bench.

"I have a son with the military, in a combat-ready unit," Mrs. Marshall said. "I'm scared to death every day. I'm disappointed about the Bush program. I was all for it when he said we were going to fight terror. But they know for a fact where that 9/11 attack originated, and it wasn't Iraq. If they had concentrated all that effort in Afghanistan, maybe by now they would have him, that other fool" - meaning Osama bin Laden.

The voters interviewed - habitual Democrats, for the most part - spoke about John Kerry with polite reserve, as if he were a distant cousin, more rumor, so far, than actual family relation. "I guess he's all right, but he's no Bill Clinton, downright homey-like," said Eddie West, a maintenance worker with the Salvation Army in Jacksonville.

Black voter participation has been increasing in recent presidential elections, and 57 percent of eligible black voters turned out in 2000, according to the Census Bureau. In 2000, Mr. Bush received one vote from African-Americans for every nine cast for Al Gore, the lowest share for any Republican since 1964, according to exit polls.

Both Mr. Bush and the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, have pledged to do better, and Republican officials are emphasizing home ownership and business opportunities before black audiences.

While both parties maintain they hope for a heavy vote from African-Americans, Democrats say history shows that would be to their benefit.

"We will equal the 2000 turnout or do better," said Bill Lynch, a deputy campaign manager for Mr. Kerry. "The community is not going to vote for George Bush in any real numbers. But we've got to get them excited about John Kerry."

Over the last 15 years or so, a rising black middle class has dispersed from cities into integrated suburbs, creating a demand for political messages that reflect the diverse circumstances of African-Americans.

During a town hall meeting with Mr. Kerry in Jacksonville last month, Robert and Anna Lee sat impassively in the rear, offering mild applause, not rising to join ovations. Even so, both Lees said they had no reluctance about supporting Mr. Kerry, who is seen by some as stiff and distant.

"Would I want to go have coffee with him?" Mr. Lee said, shrugging. "That kind of thing doesn't bother me. I'm just not satisfied where I see us going on the international scene."

The Lees moved to Florida from Michigan after Mr. Lee retired from the Internal Revenue Service. Mrs. Lee said she was astounded by Florida's problems in the 2000 election. "It seemed to have affected our people more," she said.

When Mr. Kerry took questions, the Rev. James Sampson, a Baptist minister, spoke of what many in his community perceived to be a feeble effort in north Florida by Mr. Gore's camp in the recount of 2000. About 27,000 votes were disqualified in Duval County, many from black neighborhoods in Jacksonville.

"Will you fight till every vote in Florida is counted?" Mr. Sampson asked.

"I will fight," Mr. Kerry said, "until the last dog dies." The crowd roared.

At a private gathering on Sept. 20 in midtown Manhattan with a small group of black executives and lawyers, Mr. Kerry heard discussion of "race and poverty, minority businesses, health care," said Gordon J. Davis, a partner with the law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae who once served as parks commissioner in the Koch administration. "The message was, these issues are very important to us, but we want you to win. We can debate those after you win.''

Mr. Davis continued: "The next two, three, four appointments to the Supreme Court will be made by the next president. The people in that room had the benefits of growing up in the civil rights revolution."

In southwest Philadelphia, Terrance Carter and Thomas Robinson, replacing a brick wall in a backyard, took a break to chat about the campaign. Both men said they had turned to construction work after they lost jobs - Mr. Carter with food service for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Mr. Robinson with a pharmaceutical packing company.

Mr. Carter scoffed at assertions that Mr. Bush's tax cuts had spurred the economy. "Bush is a spoiled rich boy," he declared. "It's all about a lack of jobs. I don't see no growth; I don't see nothing to be stimulated."

An Army veteran, Mr. Carter said he saw the invasion of Iraq as tantamount to "strong-arming people" and said he thought Mr. Kerry would be able to persuade the United Nations to take on a bigger role in Iraq.

"You don't hear about bin Laden at all any more," Mr. Carter said. "Couple more weeks, near to the election, you'll hear about threats."

Mr. Robinson nodded, and said: "You hear code orange. Or code red."

"Make it up as you go along," Mr. Carter said. "As long as Bush is in office, everybody's a threat."

At his home on Hazel Avenue in Philadelphia, Larry Moore, a purchasing consultant, said that he was concerned about Iraq, the environment, the Supreme Court and the tax code but that Mr. Kerry's plans seemed vague. "Now that we're in Iraq, can Kerry do anything to get us where we need to be faster?" Mr. Moore asked.

On taxes, he said: "I think the code needs to be more equitable. But people should not be penalized for working hard or because they end up doing well."

Across Hazel Avenue, June Fike, who is retired from the Campbell Soup Company, spoke about the unsettled affairs in Iraq.

"If you look at the war news, it's just -- " She paused, shaking her head, searching her mind for the words to match her distress. "I get heart trouble from it. I got a grandson, 22, he had a birthday last week. He is in the National Guard. They said it was for home security, so he signed up, but they changed it. Now they got him down in Fort Hood, getting ready to ship him out."

Leon Williams, a friend who was listening to Mrs. Fike, confessed to a soft spot for the president.

"I like Kerry, but Bush, he ain't no bad guy," Mr. Williams said. "He just got us in a jam."

"Jam?" said Mrs. Fike. "That's what you call it, a jam? We got in something looks like we can't get out of."

Kimberlyn Short, a voting canvasser from America Coming Together, a group aligned with the Democrats, approached Mrs. Fike and learned that both her 89-year-old mother and 94-year-old father would be voting this year. When Ms. Short asked if she would need help getting them to the polls, Mrs. Fike gave a firm no. "You look after some others who don't have anyone," Mrs. Fike said. "I don't care if it snows six feet high, we're getting out of here to vote."