Soft Sell

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"We've never seen in our lifetime an effort to attract the black
vote by Republicans like we're seeing now," Former Kansas City
Mayor Emanuel Cleaver told The Kansas City Star last month. In
Missouri, Republican Senate candidate Jim Talent is making the
rounds of black business groups, while black radio stations are
inundated by Republican ads calling on blacks to "break the habit"
of voting Democratic. In Arkansas, Republican ads are running on
black radio as well. Speaking in August at a barbecue organized by
the Jefferson County Minority Business Owners Association,
Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson confessed, "When I read the
history of the civil rights movement, our party wasn't doing what
we should have been doing. I ask for your forgiveness."The Republicans' new approach certainly seems like a welcome change
from the days when conservatives like Jesse Helms spurned black
voters and their causes in order to curry favor with working-class
whites. By identifying Republicans as the "white party," they
helped to revive Republican fortunes in the Deep South and in
border states. But they also increased racial polarization and even
hatred. Now, with electoral support waning for overt political
racism, it seems the Republicans have at last bid goodbye to that
sordid legacy.

Except they haven't really. For the most part, Republicans this
election cycle aren't trying to woo black voters by offering their
own solutions to issues such as poverty or civil rights. Rather,
they're trying to convince them not to vote at all by sowing
cynicism about white Democrats, even implying they are racist. This
"depress the vote" strategy becomes even clearer when viewed in
conjunction with the GOP's ongoing efforts to subtly intimidate
black voters with dubious charges of election fraud. When it comes
to race, the GOP hasn't changed nearly as much as it would have you
believe.

The best place to see the new Republican strategy in action is in
Missouri. In the 1980s, Missouri Republicans saw their party
displace the Democrats as the dominant party. By 1988, Republicans
held both Senate seats and every major state office except
lieutenant governor. But in the 1990s, Democrats began to chip away
at the GOP's advantage as some Reagan Democrats, disillusioned with
Republican economics, returned to the fold and as upscale
suburbanites became uncomfortable with the Republicans' reputation
for intolerance. While Bush carried the state narrowly in 2000,
Republican Senator John Ashcroft was defeated by the late Mel
Carnahan, and Talent lost the governorship by 21,000 votes to
Democrat Bob Holden.

One key to the Democrats' success was the overwhelming support of
black voters, who make up 51 percent of St. Louis, 19 percent of
surrounding St. Louis County, and 32 percent of Kansas City.
Carnahan and Holden piled up big enough margins in these areas to
offset GOP advantages in the rest of the state. To win state
office, Republicans realized they had to loosen black voters'
commitment to the Democrats without eroding Republican support among
the rural and small-town white voters who had migrated to the GOP.

To accomplish that, Talent has played politics with mirrors. Talent
has downplayed his own deeply held conservative convictions on such
subjects as privatizing Social Security, eliminating welfare for
single mothers, and abolishing the Department of Education.
Instead, he has trumpeted his support for urban redevelopment
through tax cuts, and he has brought in black
Republicans--Secretary of Education Rod Paige and retiring
Representative J.C. Watts--to campaign for him while saying little
that could disturb or engage black voters. The idea is not so much
to win votes but to deprive the opposition of a bogeyman against
whom they can turn out the vote.

And while Talent and Missouri Republicans have been trying to
persuade black voters that they are not such bad fellows, they've
made a ferocious effort to persuade them that the Democrats are. In
one radio ad aired on black stations, a grandmother warns her
school-age granddaughter, "Baby, there are some real ugly Democrats
that have hurt black people and not helped us at all. We have to be
smart and make decisions based on what is really right. Not just
'cause somebody told us we owe them our vote." In another ad, aired
repeatedly on St. Louis stations, an announcer lists a series of
indignities that white Democrats have visited upon blacks:

Did you know that it was a Democratic county executive and
prosecutor that said it was OK to shoot down two unarmed black
suspects? ... Did you know that under the leadership of Democratic
Mayor Francis Slay, the most prominent black ward in the city of
St. Louis was eliminated? Did you know that to secure his chances
of being reelected, Congressman Dick Gephardt took black voters
away from Congressman Lacy Clay? ... Break the habit. Think the
vote.

The ad isn't just ugly; it's dishonest. It refers to a decision by
state and federal authorities not to prosecute two detectives who
shot and killed two men whom they were trying to arrest on drug
charges. It doesn't mention that the decision was made by local
Democratic officials and the Bush administration Justice
Department. The ad also misrepresents the redistricting fights in
greater St. Louis, failing to note that they pitted black
officeholders against one another as well as against white
officeholders and that the fights were finally resolved to the
satisfaction of everyone except for a single maverick alderwoman.
In fact, Gephardt, while giving himself a more Democratic
constituency, took no significant votes from Clay. As a result, both
men face only nominal opponents this November.

Such ads don't suggest what Republicans would do if they replaced
Democrats in office. Instead, they try to sow doubt among blacks
about the sincerity and goodwill of white Democrats. Their primary
purpose is not to win support for Republicans but to lose it for
Democrats. As an anonymous leaflet placed on the cars of NAACP
members at an October 4 meeting in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, put it,
"Send Mark Pryor a strong message by casting your vote for Senator
Tim Hutchinson or just not voting in that particular race [emphasis
added]." Says St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren,
"The whole idea is to alienate blacks from their Democratic base so
that they don't turn out and vote. "

And as the leaflet suggests, it's not just Missouri: GOP Groups are
running similar ad campaigns in other states and districts where
black voters could determine close contests. The Kansas-based
Council for a Better Government is spending $1.5 million to produce
and air radio commercials in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut,
Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New
Mexico, North Carolina, and North Dakota. The ads are supposed to
air 21,000 times by November 5. Like the Missouri Republican Party
ads, they insinuate that blacks are being manipulated by evil white
Democrats. One ad about vouchers says, "I got one question for
these white Democrats. What's wrong with black parents choosing
schools for black children? Do you have a problem with that?"
Another suggests that black soldiers were singled out for
mistreatment during the Clinton years. "Under the Democratic
administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore," the narrator says,
"African American soldiers helped keep the peace in five
continents, but their readiness declined through neglect, and their
morale declined through disrespect."

GOPAC, the organization made famous by Newt Gingrich and currently
chaired by Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, has launched its own ad
campaign directed at minority voters. Its first radio ads aired in
Missouri and in the neighboring Kansas congressional district where
conservative Republican Adam Taff is challenging incumbent Democrat
Dennis Moore. One ad about Social Security accused white Democrats
of using the system to take money away from black Americans.
"You've heard about reparations. You know, where whites compensate
blacks for enslaving us?" the ad began. "Well, guess what we've got
now? Reverse reparations. Under Social Security today, blacks
receive twenty- one thousand dollars less in retirement benefits
than whites of similar income and marital status. ... One-third of
the brothers die before retirement and receive nothing. ... So the
next time some Democrat says he won't touch Social Security, ask
why he thinks blacks owe reparations to whites."

According to The Kansas City Star, Talent paid for the ad's time
slot, but it provoked such an outcry that his campaign repudiated
it and GOPAC disowned it, blaming it on the media group that
produced it. The ad is a gross distortion: Black Americans actually
get a better rate of return on Social Security than whites and do
considerably better on disability and survivor benefits. But more
noteworthy than the ads' distortions is their explicit effort to
inflame blacks against whites. We've seen this kind of twisted
racial appeal before from black nationalists like Louis Farrakhan
(and, at their worst, from Democrats) but not from white
Republicans.

The second prong of this year's GOP efforts to suppress the minority
vote has been widespread allegations of voter fraud in minority
communities. Such efforts go back decades. In 1986, the Republican
National Committee (RNC) devised a "ballot security program" that
was used in Louisiana, Indiana, and Missouri. It was designed, in
the words of an RNC memo, to "keep the black vote down
considerably."

This year GOP officials in Missouri have accused Clay, the state's
most prominent black Democrat, and other St. Louis Democrats of
stealing the 2000 Senate and gubernatorial elections. Republicans
point to the Democrats' success in convincing Circuit Judge Evelyn
Baker to keep the polls open past 7 p.m. on Election Day to
accommodate those still standing outside St. Louis polling places
waiting to vote. The polling places had been clogged by disputes
over the qualifications of voters who had been unaccountably
removed from the registration lists. An appeals court panel
subsequently overturned Baker's order, but Missouri Republican
Senator Christopher Bond declared two days later that the "evidence
points to a major criminal enterprise" by the Democrats. Bond
rejected the idea that any voters had been prevented from voting.
"Can you believe that anybody would say that a Democratic election
board, appointed by a Democratic governor in a Democratic city
dominated by Democrats, was trying to keep Democrats from voting?"
he asked. Since then, according to St. Louis Post- Dispatch
reporter Jo Mannies, Missouri Republicans have "savaged" Clay's
reputation over the fraud allegations.

St. Louis has had instances of voter fraud before, and what exactly
happened on Election Night remains shrouded in controversy. What
has been established, however, doesn't point to a Democratic
conspiracy. Baker was a Republican appointee, and the Democrats on
the city's election board protested her decision to keep the polls
open. "I think Sen. Bond needs to get a grip," Baker told the
Riverfront Times after hearing his charges. Meanwhile, Clay's
central contention--that several hundred registered voters were
being prevented from voting by faulty lists--has been borne out.
This August the Bush Justice Department agreed with Clay and the
Democrats that "the Board of Elections improperly removed voters
from the registration rolls by placing voters on inactive status
without notice and then failing to maintain procedures on Election
Day adequate to ensure that those voters could reactivate their
registration status and vote without undue delay."

The Justice Department decision quieted discussion of the 2000
election, but Missouri Republicans have now begun to raise the
specter of voter fraud in the coming election. They even attempted
to create another logjam at the St. Louis polls in November. While
a new Missouri law says that voters whose eligibility cannot
"immediately" be established should be able to cast provisional
ballots subject to later verification, Missouri Republican
Secretary of State Matt Blunt announced in October that if voters'
names were not on the rolls, election judges would have to attempt
to verify their registrations before they could cast provisional
ballots. That was exactly what had caused the long lines in 2000.
Facing a suit from Missouri Democrats, Blunt compromised, but Bond
has continued to warn of imminent fraud. Last week he declared, "I
get that funny smell sometimes around election time in St. Louis,
and ... I'm getting a whiff of that smell."

Republicans outside Missouri have also been using allegations of
fraud to intimidate potential minority voters. In Arkansas, where
there are hotly contested Senate, gubernatorial, and House races,
Republicans have already begun charging fraud. In Jefferson
County--which is 40 percent black and in the middle of Democrat
Mike Ross's district--a group of predominately black voters, who
went to the county courthouse to cast their early ballots on October
21, were confronted by Republican poll watchers (including,
reportedly, two Hutchinson staffers) who photographed them and
demanded that they show identification--even though Arkansas law
stipulates that poll watchers cannot ask voters to show
identification. According to a witness cited by the Pine Bluff
Commercial, several voters became frustrated and left. When
Arkansas Democrats complained, Arkansas Republican Party Chairman
Marty Ryall upped the ante, suggesting that Democrats were engaged
in a "nationwide effort to steal elections and steal the Senate."

Likewise, in Georgia, Republican officials have announced a "fair
elections task force" to monitor the polls in November. In South
Dakota, Republican officials, citing several instances of forged
registrations from Native Americans, have called on Attorney
General Ashcroft to send federal election monitors to the state.
And in Hidalgo County, Texas, Republicans are already crying fraud.
In that county, heavily populated by Hispanics, Democratic
gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez has been actively registering
voters. In the first three days of early voting, 4,969 people cast
ballots compared to 1, 705 in the last gubernatorial election. On
October 23, Hidalgo County Republican Party Chairman Hollis
Rutledge warned that the election system was "primed for fraud" and
claimed that an organization called VoterViews found 16, 000 dead
or unqualified people on the Hidalgo voter rolls. Texas's
Republican Secretary of State Gwyn Shea, however, said she had
never heard of VoterViews and had not seen their report.
(VoterViews is located at the Austin address of a precinct chairman
of the Travis County Republican Party. I sent him an e-mail
requesting a copy of the study but did not hear back from him.)

To be sure, voter fraud still exists in poor areas. But as the 2000
election showed, ensuring the right to vote is a much greater
problem, particularly among low-income minorities in places like
Jacksonville, Florida--where in November 2000, nearly 5,000 ballots
in predominately African American communities were tossed out
because of a flawed ballot. David Bositis, an expert in voting
rights with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in
Washington, sees the Republicans' strategy this year as simply a
continuation of the Reagan-era efforts to hold down the minority
vote. "Their agenda has always been to make voting more difficult,
because they realize the higher the turnout, the more likely the
turnout won't be their kind of guys."

In short, it's not yet time to celebrate the end of Republican
racial politics. Conservative Republicans may be paying more
attention to black voters than in the past--and they may be smiling
as they speak--but when this mask of warm-hearted concern is drawn
aside, the GOP's strategy is still aimed less at creating diverse
black political participation than at trying to persuade black
Americans to participate as little as possible. Let's hope it
fails.

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