Two years ago, Kendrick Meek was among the first Congressional Black Caucus members, along with the dean of the CBC, John Lewis of Georgia, Meek’s mentor, the late Stephanie Tubbs-Jones of Ohio, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, and the other two Black Congresspeople from Florida, Alcee Hastings and Corinne Brown, to back Hillary Clinton over her upstart, African-American challenger, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. Back then, when I interviewed Hastings on the radio, asking why he and so many of his colleagues chose Hillary over Obama, he said it was because “we really don’t know him. We know her.” It was about relationships, and loyalty, not racial solidarity. Now, those same CBC members have changed their minds, and they are stepping up their demands that President Obama do more to support Meek’s Senate campaign.
Black lawmakers are prodding the White House to get more involved in Florida Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek’s campaign amid growing concern that less-than-robust backing from President Barack Obama will signal to Democrats that it’s all right to help independent Charlie Crist.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, told POLITICO Thursday that he might not work for Obama’s reelection if the president doesn’t get into gear for Meek — a four-term House member seeking to become the first black politician elected to the Senate since President Obama won in Illinois in 2004.
“If they do not step up their support for Kendrick, then they cannot expect that I and my allies will support them in 2012,” Hastings said, after describing the West Wing’s treatment of Meek as “poor.”
… Rep. Barbara Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said black lawmakers have made “very clear” to the White House and congressional leaders that black lawmakers expect total support for Meek.
All of which is, of course, ironic, since two years ago, these same lawmakers threw their support behind then-front runner Hillary Clinton, in the presidential primary against then-Senator Barack Obama, defying not just the tug of history, but also their own constituents.
The tug of war for Black America between Obama and Hillary was agonizing for a lot of people. Hillary was a friend. Her husband was so close to so many in Black America, he was dubbed “the first Black president.” She was seen as electable, and the Clintons spent years building relationships, and loyalties, among Black legislators. Still, for many Black leaders with roots in the civil rights movement, including Lewis, who played a key role in the 1965 March on Washington and who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the growing realization that Obama could actually win, was edging them toward the wrong side of history — they were backing a white woman against potentially the first Black president of the United States.
Some flinched. Lewis, who drew a primary challenge (his first in 16 years) as a result of his apostasy, eventually switched his support to Obama in February. Meek and Tubbs-Jones, whose support for Hillary sometimes bordered on the belligerent, refused to walk away from Senator Clinton. Meek and Hastings campaigned hard for Hillary, calling her the better candidate, and more accomplished than Obama. Still, Obama easily won Meek’s, Hastings’ and Brown’s Congressional districts (Hastings: 51.7%-41.9% and Meek’s: 55.1%-39.9%) even as he lost South Florida 33.% to Hillary’s 56.2%.
Meek stayed with Hillary until the bitter end, until long after she was clearly no longer viable. He even stood by Bill Clinton through the infamous South Carolina “Jesse Jackson” comment, which drove a wedge between the former president and much of Black America, and caused what reportedly has been a permanent rupture between the former president and Jim Clyburn. Meek, in fact, was with Clinton when he made the remarks, and he became Clinton’s key character witness regarding the controversy, which even split Democrats outside the Black community.
Back in Miami, that prompted some prominent Black leaders, including Bishop Victor Curry, who hosts a Tuesday talk program on the radio station owned by his church — one of Miami’s most prominent Black churches (he’s also president of the Miami-Dade NAACP) to slam Meek for not speaking up. Curry asked on his radio show why Meek didn’t turn to the president and say, “sorry Mr. President, but that’s not right.” Meek called in to defend himself and the former president, but not everyone forgot, even if they forgave.
The Florida Democratic delegation, which had universally supported Hillary, finally endorsed Obama on June 5th, 2008, with no press conference — only a written statement. But while some, like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, promptly rolled up their sleeves and got to work for Obama, others remained bitter. For his part, Hastings was front and center in the months-long battle over how and whether to seat Hillary’s delegates at the Denver convention (which dragged on into August.) Hastings ultimately refused to attend the convention, in protest.
It’s easy to forget how bitter the battle of 2008 was, or to assume that all Democrats have gotten over it. But some scar tissue remains among African-Americans in Florida, on both sides of the Obama-Clinton divide, and it is somewhat ironic, that the very same people who felt no compulsion to support “the Black candidate” in 2008, now are demanding that the president work harder for the Black candidate in Florida.
Sidebar: Hastings apparently encouraged Meek to run for Senate now, rather than wait…
Beyond race and history, the Obama-Clinton battle in 2008 was also about the old guard vs. the new. Meek, who hails from a storied political family, based on his mother’s historic election to Congress — the same year Hastings won his seat, and coincidentally, the start of the Clinton era, in 1992 — versus the new guard: people like Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Jesse L. Jackson Jr. in Chicago, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick all backed Obama, and remain influential with Obamaworld. Hillary’s vanguard, the entrenched CBC membership, and members of the Black intelligentsia like Tavis Smiley (whose hostility to Obama was fierce during the campaign, even getting him booted from his slot on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, and which remains steadfast today) and Cornell West, thought Obama’s commitment to Black America was lest robust than Bill Clinton’s demonstrated friendship.
That these two camps are still at war, or more accurately, a cold peace, isn’t surprising to me, having lived through the Hillary-Obama agonistes up close. The ongoing, underlying tension plays out in everything from unemployment policy to the Shirley Sherrod case.
So now, Obama is being called on to help Meek out, and some, like Radio One/CNN commentator Roland Martin (who took Tavis Smiley’s place on the Tom Joyner show), are hinting that if he doesn’t, Black voters might not show up for the Democratic Party in November. That’s an interesting case to make, but I don’t think it’s neatly applied in this case. Black voters in Florida seem to be moving away from rote ethnic voting, and toward a more clinical analysis of who they think will get something done for their communities. If turnout is relatively low among Black voters in August, as is usually the case in midterms, it will only reinforce the notion that the “Obama voters” are more loyal to him than they are to the general idea of voting for Black candidates. And while Meek will likely win the lion’s share of Black votes in August, it remains to be seen if he will get the overwhelming numbers — in the 90th percentile — that Obama did.
More likely, I think, is that a combination of the Michelle Spence Jones machine which Jeff Greene co-opted in Miami, some residual resentment over the Obama-Hillary primary, and the significant minority of Black voters who are moving toward Charlie Crist (and who may or may not turn up to vote in August), are going to complicate the Black voting picture in August and November. People I talk to are very much open to hearing what the other Senate candidates — well two of them, anyway: Jeff Greene and particularly Charlie Crist — have to say. In a sense, they were given “permission” to look beyond race when picking a candidate — they were given that permission by Kendrick Meek.
One quick sidebar, and a wild card in the race that is definitely in Meek’s favor — his seat is up for grabs on August 24, and that means there are 9 candidates working hard to drive their voters to the polls. That should help Meek in a very large portion of “Black Miami” and balance out whatever the Hardemon-Spence Jones team is able to do for Jeff Greene in Liberty City. We’ll see what happens…
ONE MORE THING: I was thinking tonight about what “get into gear for Meek” could mean… and I’m not sure what more Obama could do, beyond having his team state that they support Meek’s candidacy, as they’ve done. Sure, the president has gotten involved in primaries: Bennett in Colorado, Specter in PA, Blanche Lincoln … but in each of those cases, most of what Obama did to “get into gear” was record robocalls ahead of the primary (as he’s just done for Bennett.) Also, the beneficiaries of the president’s support are all sitting Senators (Obama has fundraised for Barbara Boxer, for example, but that’s for the general election, not the primary…)
And why would the president get so fully into gear for sitting Senators? Because he either 1) needs their support before the election for key votes, 2) owes them for walking the plank for his agenda in the past, or in Specter’s case, for switching parties, or 3) both. The president, as head of the party, has a responsibility to defend those incumbents (House members might say he also has a bit of Senatorial favoritism going on…) There can really be no hard feelings on the part of the challengers to those incumbents, because they understand that (as Joe Sestak said repeatedly.) But the president, again, as head of the party, has no real obligation to get involved in open primaries — particularly open primaries where one of the parties involved is a major Democratic donor, having kicked in more than $30 grand to the DSCC last year, and who will still be around, with his money, in 2012, win or lose.
It could be that Obama isn’t particularly trying to dis Kendrick by not getting involved, but that he’s exercising rather deft judgment by letting the primary play out, and then letting his team weigh their options after that. The only call to obligation the CBC can possibly be citing in Kendrick’s case is based on race. As explained above, it can’t be based on Kendrick’s past support of him, or on relationships (as with Bill Clinton) so that leaves race. And that is simply not a tenable argument to make to the president, who after all, cannot operate on that basis and still be a credible leader of all Americans (or all Democrats, for that matter.)
Put more bluntly, Barack Obama has no more obligation to help Black Democratic candidates than white ones. That’s both reality, and morality. He certainly can appeal to Black voters to participate, based on his powerful ability to persuade, and the pride the Black community feels at his very presence in office. And he surely will do that, especially in the general (with Black, young and new voters), which will greatly benefit Meek if he is the nominee. But to ask him to use that moral force on behalf of one Democrat in an open race, just because that candidate is Black, strikes me as unfair. And it goes directly against the implied argument that Kendrick Meek made in 2008 — that his obligation was to stand for the best candidate, white or Black. Having made that argument himself in supporting Hillary Clinton, he should advise his supporters in the CBC that it makes no sense to reverse course now, just because he is struggling. (Obama can do some things re race, which I argue he should in my Herald column tomorrow, but this is about politics at the micro level, not his obligations to the country as a whole…)
Just a thought…