Reidblog [The Reid Report blog]

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Thursday, February 14, 2008
The Obama dilemma, part two
I had a front row seat to the late adoption of Barack Obama's candidacy by Black folk. I can still remember having to defend Barack against streams of angry callers -- all of them Black -- and from my own program director at the time (at Radio One Miami), who were calling him a phony, not really Black, and accusing him of never having fought for civil rights "the way Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have." Black folk were supremely skeptical of Obama. I can recall conversations with two very prominent African-Americans, one in the clergy, one in the media -- neither of whom I'll name -- who expressed sentiments about Obama that were so negative, no downright nasty, that I was frankly shocked. One of the two has taken to doing gauzy interviews with the candidate ... the other has conspicuously warmed to his candidacy...

To be honest, in was those on-air (and in studio) battles in large part that turned me from a long time, and I do mean long time Clinton supporter (I loved the 90s, thought Bill Clinton was a great president, particularly on the economy, and wanted Hillary to run in 2004) to an Obama supporter. I had known of Barack since Harvard (he's a bit of a legendary figure there among Black students) and have met him on a few occasions, including in 2004 when I was working for Harold Ickes 527 (America Coming Together.) I always figured he'd eventually run for president, though no one could have imagined it would be this soon, or this strong a run. Perhaps because of that familiarity, in the beginning, the charm he held for the media, and particularly for young white folks, was largely lost on me. Besides, I, like many political watchers, thought the Clinton machine was unbeatable.

But there came a time -- around mid-year last year -- when I realized that I couldn't remain on the fence. There was no way I could side with Hillary against him -- choose a white woman over a Black man -- and while I'm usually not that strictly racial, I thought I had to make that decision, and declared on the air last summer that I would vote for him, not her (and I did vote for him on January 29th.) I'll never forget a conversation I had with State Senator Fredrica Wilson after an Obama speech at the Miami Auditorium (a damned good speech, by the way) on August 25th of last year. I caught up with the Senator afterward to get an interview for the next morning's show, and she surprised me by being exceptionally blunt, saying in plain terms that after all we've fought for, and after all we tell your young Black boys about what they can become if they just work hard, how can anyone -- including any Black elected official -- not support this young man, who has done all that we tell our sons to do? That was game over for me.

Here in South Florida, it has been bizarre, watching the Black electorate swing broadly in Barack's direction, including on Primary Day, even as all three Black Congresspeople from Florida support Hillary (Kendrick Meek has even been traveling with former President Clinton, including during the South Carolina contretemps...) And a couple of weeks ago, Bishop Victor Curry, probably the most prominent Black religious leader in South Florida, went off on Meek for going in the opposite direction of his constituents. (The dust-up didn't last long...)

So imagine my surprise (or not) at reading that more than a few Black electeds are having second thoughts about their early endorsement of Hillary Clinton... From the Associated Press:
In a fresh sign of trouble for Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the former first lady's congressional black supporters intends to vote for Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, and a second, more prominent lawmaker is openly discussing a possible switch.

Rep. David Scott's defection and Rep. John Lewis' remarks highlight one of the challenges confronting Clinton in a campaign that pits a black man against a woman for a nomination that historically has been the exclusive property of white men.

"You've got to represent the wishes of your constituency," Scott said in an interview Wednesday in the Capitol. "My proper position would be to vote the wishes of my constituents." The third-term lawmaker represents a district that gave more than 80 percent of its vote to Obama in the Feb. 5 Georgia primary.

Lewis, whose Atlanta-area district voted 3-to-1 for Obama, said he is not ready to abandon his backing for the former first lady. But several associates said the nationally known civil rights figure has become increasingly torn about his early endorsement of Clinton. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing private conversations.

In an interview, Lewis likened Obama to Robert F. Kennedy in his ability to generate campaign excitement, and left open the possibility he might swing behind the Illinois senator. "It could (happen). There's no question about it. It could happen with a lot of people ... we can count and we see the clock," he said.

Clinton's recent string of eight primary and caucus defeats coincides with an evident shift in momentum in the contest for support from party officials who will attend the convention. The former first lady still holds a sizable lead among the roughly 800 so-called superdelegates, who are chosen outside the primary and caucus system.

But Christine Samuels, until this week a Clinton superdelegate from New Jersey, said during the day she is now supporting Obama.

Two other superdelegates, Sophie Masloff of Pennsylvania and Nancy Larson of Minnesota, are uncommitted, having dropped their earlier endorsements of Clinton.

On Wednesday, David Wilhelm, a longtime ally of the Clintons who had been neutral in the presidential race, endorsed Obama.

The comments by Scott and Lewis reflect pressure on Clinton's black supporters, particularly elected officLinkials, not to stand in the way of what is plainly the best chance in history to have an African-American president.

"Nobody could see this" in advance, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black in Congress, said of Obama's emergence. He is officially neutral in the race, but expressed his irritation earlier in the year with remarks that Clinton and her husband the former president had made about civil rights history.
I've always wondered what kind of pressure Mr. Lewis -- the second most prominent speaker at the 1963 March on Washington after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a man considered far more militant than King when it came to civil rights -- must be under, having fought so hard for civil rights, only to wind up siding against the Black man with the best chance ever, of becoming president ... apparently, he is wavering so much he could soon switch sides. The pressure on Lewis and other Black lawmakers is unfair -- but it's real.

And then there's this:
One black supporter of Clinton, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, said he remains committed to her. "There's nothing going on right now that would cause me to" change, he said.

He said any suggestion that elected leaders should follow their voters "raises the age old political question. Are we elected to monitor where our constituents are ... or are we to use our best judgment to do what's in the best interests of our constituents."

In an interview, Cleaver offered a glimpse of private conversations.

He said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois had recently asked him "if it comes down to the last day and you're the only superdelegate? ... Do you want to go down in history as the one to prevent a black from winning the White House?

"I told him I'd think about it," Cleaver concluded.

Jackson, an Obama supporter, confirmed the conversation, and said the dilemma may pose a career risk for some black politicians. "Many of these guys have offered their support to Mrs. Clinton, but Obama has won their districts. So you wake up without the carpet under your feet. You might find some young primary challenger placing you in a difficult position" in the future, he added. ...
I go back to that John Conyers quote I posted here:
"To me, there's a historical consideration in this as well," Conyers says. "How in the world could I explain to people I fought for civil rights and equality, then we come to the point where an African American of unquestioned capability has a chance to become president and I said, 'No, I have dear old friends I've always supported, who I've always liked.' What do you tell your kids?"
What do you tell them, indeed.

Whom you support in a presidential contest is a deeply personal decision, and not one that should be subjected to external scrutiny. That said, the Obama candidacy is a gut check moment for most Black Americans, whether we want it to be or not. It's a bit of a shame that it's that way, and I'm very heartened by the fact that in so many ways, Barack's candidacy is race neutral. That's part of the reason it's been so successful. But while his run transcends race for white people, it carries the banner of race for black folk, if that makes any sense, and many of us are struggling with it (just as I'm sure Irish Catholics did with JFK and Jewish people did with Joe Lieberman, etc., etc., etc...)

I for one am proud to have voted for, and in my limited capacity, endorsed, the man who could be America's first black president. I'm proud of my country for rendering that fact somewhat less remarkable today than it would have been, even ten years ago. And I wouldn't want to be a Congressional Black Caucus member for Hillary today, for all the money in the world.


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posted by JReid @ 11:56 PM  
ReidBlog: The Obama Interview
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