The Morning After

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FEBRUARY 27, 2008

The Morning After

On January 30, readers of The New York Times' website might have
noticed something intriguing in its "City Room" section. Nestled
between outtakes from a night with young Republicans in Staten
Island and part four of a five-part series on tenantlandlord issues
was the headline: on michelle obama's guest list: alma rangel. What
followed was a report on how the wife of House Ways and Means
Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel, the legendary Harlem
representative, had dropped by an Obama fund-raiser on the Upper
East Side.What made the item so curious is that Rangel is a longtime Hillary
Clinton supporter. He's credited with the inspiration for her
maiden Senate bid in 2000; the next year, he played a pivotal role
in bringing Bill Clinton's post- presidential office to 125th
Street, Rangel's backyard. That such an inner member of Rangel's
inner circle would be caught nibbling bruschetta behind enemy lines
seemed like a major breach of protocol.

Or was it? A few days later, Alma Rangel came out from the shadows
and officially endorsed Obama. Atmospherics being what they are in
politics, it's hard to believe she would have taken that step
without at least a tacit green light from her husband. Less hard to
believe is that Rangel would have given it. With African Americans
now overwhelmingly embracing Barack Obama--something that remained
in doubt as recently as two months ago--these can be lonely times
for the black elected officials who've endorsed his chief rival.

It was, of course, the night of the South Carolina primary when it
first became obvious that African American voters had parted
company with many black leaders on the matter of presidential
preferences. As the exit polls gushed in showing Obama winning
roughly 80 percent of the black vote, Hillary endorsers like Sheila
Jackson Lee, an African American representative from Texas,
suddenly found themselves waging a rearguard p.r. battle. "In South
Carolina, you saw a convergence of pride and respect on the
outstanding candidates that they had, and certainly in Senator
Obama," was all the grim-faced Jackson Lee could muster. "There's
nothing wrong with that. People choose who they want to choose."

In retrospect, the South Carolina results exposed a divide in the
way the campaigns courted African American pols. The Clintons had
largely operated from a top-down model--relying on personal
relationships and the self-interest of black politicians and hoping
their constituents would follow suit. In one now- famous episode,
they went so far as to give State Senator Darrell Jackson, a
prominent pastor, a consulting contract. By contrast, the Obama
campaign generally observed a "no walking-around money" policy. It
made the case to African American politicians by pointing to its
grassroots strength (though it didn't hurt that Obama's PAC handed
out nearly $200,000 to candidates and political groups in early
primary states last year). "After we won Iowa, I went to a lot of
leaders and said, 'You better get on the train before it comes
rolling through here,'" recalls Anton Gunn, Obama's South Carolina
political director. "Some laughed it off; others recognized this
was for real."

Often the divide was generational. With some notable exceptions, the
profile of the typical African American Clinton endorser was
someone who'd supported Bill Clinton and had enjoyed some amount of
White House largesse in return. (As president, Clinton had
headlined multiple fund-raisers for Jackson Lee, for example.) For
his part, Obama tended to clean up among those who had entered
elective office during the post-Clinton era. Freshman Georgia
Representative Hank Johnson told me he got a call from Obama before
he was even sworn in last January. He was spoken for by the time a
Clinton operative sidled up to him in the spring.

Whatever the nature of the split, it wasn't hard to see the problem
for the Clinton supporters in the aftermath of South Carolina. "For
individuals who endorsed Senator Clinton, [the risk was always
that] Obama would prove to be enormously popular in the black
community; he'd win the lion's share of your district," says
Alabama Representative Artur Davis, who endorsed Obama last
February. "You'd find yourself at odds with your constituents, and
an opponent could use that against you."

It's still hard to imagine that people like Rangel--icons who've
been reelected with little or no opposition in their districts for
decades--will face much of a challenge. (Hillary actually carried
Rangel's district Tuesday night, thanks in part to the large
Hispanic vote there.) For others, the problems may just be
beginning. According to Jamal Simmons, a political consultant who
works in heavily African American areas, the effect the Obama
campaign is having on black communities could be similar to the
effect the Dean campaign had in upscale liberal enclaves in 2004:
In many of these places, turnout has suddenly doubled, giving a
local representative tens of thousands of new voting constituents
to worry about--many of whom cast their first votes for Barack
Obama.

The new, Obama-supporting demographic is much younger and more male
than the existing black electorate, says Obama pollster Cornell
Belcher. They're unlikely to respond well when cautioned against
"leapfrogging"--a term the machine pols use to stress the
importance of paying one's dues (and which Hillary invoked during a
recent appearance with Rangel). And they could easily form a base
for future campaigns across the country.

There is historical precedent for such mobilization in the black
community. After Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984 and '88,
many of the activists and voters he attracted stuck around to help
elect a generation of black politicians--most prominent among them
David Dinkins, who won his race for mayor of New York in 1989. "If
not for Jesse Jackson and the kind of electoral coalition he was
able to put together, Dinkins would not have been possible," says
Wellesley political scientist Wilbur Rich, an expert on urban
politics. "Dinkins had no base outside of Manhattan."

And Obama isn't just bringing new voters into the process. He's
bringing new donors, too. As Simmons puts it: "You've got a group
of lawyers or business people who just finished raising $300,000
for Barack Obama. They're saying to themselves, 'It costs a million
to run for Congress. ... We're a third of the way there.'" This is
never the kind of calculation an incumbent wants to encourage.

A savvy politician will stay abreast of these developments and pivot
to accommodate them. "I do have a network of people that are not
limited to my district that I communicate with all the time," says
South Carolina's Jim Clyburn, the House's third-ranking Democrat. A
week out from primary day, Clyburn was detecting all manner of
frustration with the Clintons' polarizing tactics. Only a
longstanding promise to the state party, and the urging of his wife
and daughter, kept him on the sidelines. But, once the votes were
counted, he immediately turned his attention to his new pro-Obama
constituency. "Sunday afternoon, I went into the Democratic Party
headquarters," he says. "They showed me how many people voted in
the sixth congressional district. I got a printout. Every one of
those people will hear from me in one way or another between now
and the election."

Those of Clyburn's colleagues who endorsed Hillary should plan on
doing the same. Greg Moore is the executive director of the naacp
Voter Fund and a friend of Cleveland Representative Stephanie Tubbs
Jones, another Clinton supporter. He attributes Tubbs Jones's
endorsement to her work with Hillary on an election- reform bill
after the problems in Ohio in 2004, and he admires her loyalty. But
he suspects there will be fallout. "Her district is fifty-five
percent African American," Moore told me. "People say, 'Why isn't
she supporting Barack Obama?' It does make her life less pleasant
than it would be if she were endorsing an African American." The
post-South Carolina anti-Clinton backlash did little to help her
situation.

Tubbs Jones will probably weather the rough patch. "I haven't felt
any unpleasantness; that's not to say I may not in the future," she
says, stressing that her relationship with the Clintons goes back
years and that she felt Hillary was the most qualified candidate.
But, according to an Atlanta-based political strategist who works
in the African American community, Representative David Scott could
face more serious problems in Georgia, where Obama won nearly 90
percent of the black vote. "There are definitely rumblings among
young people," says the strategist. "[The Hillary endorsement] was a
lot riskier for Congressman Scott." Complicating the situation is
the fact that there are now at least three formidable African
American politicians raising money for what's expected to be an
intensely competitive Atlanta mayor's race in 2009. At least two of
those candidates will lose, leaving them with an organization, a
fund-raising network, and an itch for higher office. It wouldn't be
shocking if one of them challenged Scott.

Meanwhile, in Detroit last month, Clinton lost overwhelmingly to
"uncommitted"--the box many local pro-Obama groups had encouraged
their members to check because Obama himself was not contesting
Michigan. When I asked Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a
long-serving Detroit representative, whether he would have been in
trouble had he endorsed Clinton rather than Obama, he told me, "I
think it would have created tension. I don't think it would have
been a serious problem ... but it only takes one person to announce
in your district that they're running against you." That may be one
reason why Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, another Detroit-area
representative, kept her presumed support for Hillary quiet in the
weeks leading up to the primary. (Kilpatrick never endorsed but
took heat from her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus
last September after featuring Hillary at a town hall-style forum
during the CBC's annual conference.)

Still, one of the things you hear most often from Obama endorsers
like Conyers has less to do with avoiding a challenger than
avoiding social embarrassment in the years to come. "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?" Charlie and Alma Rangel
may have wondered the same thing.

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