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Blacks on Clinton Team Say Whites Make the Decisions

June 21, 1992|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Black staff members working for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's campaign complain that they lack influential input into its daily operations, a problem they say has fostered mixed messages and scheduling mishaps that have undercut Clinton's effort to build support within the black community.

Such discord, coming amid a continuing dispute between Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the nation's most prominent black leader, raises questions about the racial dynamic within the campaign team.

Although Clinton talks often with a private and influential kitchen cabinet of politically prominent black leaders, his lower-ranking black staffers say important campaign decisions are made by a tightly knit cadre of white political professionals.

The upshot is that while Clinton has made racial harmony a key theme of his candidacy, race-based disagreements are occurring among staffers over the campaign's strategies and direction.

Black campaign workers, for instance, argue that they could have better advised Clinton on how to avoid the prolonged flap over his condemnation of a black rap singer so that his objections to her comments were better received by blacks.

They contend that white campaign officials mishandled a planned speech at a recent meeting of publishers of black-owned newspapers, resulting in hurt feelings among a group that was predisposed to be an advocate for the Clinton campaign in black communities nationwide.

And, some of the black staffers say, they would have suggested alternative ways for Clinton to exhibit leadership during the Los Angeles riots.

"A lot of these guys (at the top rung of the Clinton campaign) are not tuned-in to the fact that the world has changed," said one black staff member who, like most interviewed, requested anonymity. "They assume all the world thinks as they do. But that's not reality. Sometimes black people think and strategize better than they do."

None of the black staffers said they believed Clinton was racist or exhibited any hostility toward blacks working for the campaign, and none said they were considering quitting because of their disagreements with white staffers. One, in fact, said he remained on the staff because he thought Clinton was a fair-minded politician.

"If not for him, I'd be gone," he said. "He understands the problems (of black people) better than most of the guys around him."

George Stephanopoulos, the campaign's communications director and one of Clinton's top consultants, said he was unaware of complaints among black staffers. The campaign named eight blacks among what Stephanopoulos called "the very senior inner circle of people." They are Lottie Shackleford, Rodney Slatter and Carroll Willis, all deputy campaign managers; Bernard Craighead, a regional field director; Meredith Napper, deputy director of scheduling; Bob Nash, senior adviser; Avis LaVelle, national press secretary, and Bob Rush, director of voter registration.

Stephanopoulos and other campaign officials also noted that Slatter, Willis and LaVelle often travel with Clinton, a mark of access and status within a presidential campaign.

Additionally, Clinton "talks a lot, almost daily" to prominent black elected officials who are close to him personally and support his campaign, Stephanopoulos said. "He's a vacuum cleaner for information from a variety of sources and people."

Among the black leaders with whom Clinton regularly discusses campaign strategy and issues are Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-La.), Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.). Repeated efforts to reach them over the weekend were unsuccessful.

LaVelle, the press secretary who joined the campaign last month, said it is normal that "on any given day any group of people in an organization as large as this will feel some discontentment."

But she denied that other black staffers have any reason to feel singled out. "I understand the feelings of some people that their input may not be as highly regarded as others," she added. "There is no concerted effort to disregard the concerns of African-Americans. In fact, it's just the opposite. Everybody's thoughts are welcomed and encouraged."

Some black staffers, however, complain that their views are rarely solicited by campaign officials and even more rarely acted upon. Often, they say, white campaign officials call upon black staffers to serve as "tokens" in the "backdrop for photo opportunities."

"It's frustrating," said one black staff member who has experience in two previous Democratic presidential campaigns. "It's like we're in the room but we're not supposed to have any ideas or to even speak up. That's only the job for the white boys."

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