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Wary Democrats Are Seen Steering Clear of Black Voters : Elections: Analysts say trend is driven by fear of seeming to curry favor amid conservative climate. Critics warn the tactic could cost party victories.

October 12, 1994|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Viewed from afar and with pragmatism, the intersection of 55th and Vine streets in the western reaches of this city is a political no-man's land.

A two-story housing development crouching at the urban junction warehouses families who live feebly on public assistance and beyond the glad-handing of politicians. Nearly everyone in sight--the single women with infants and the young men in baggy pants who heckle passing cars--seems young, hopeless and African American, a demographic slice that many politicians write off as unlikely to turn out on Election Day.

The poor--black and white, alike--are often overlooked as potential voters, considered not worth the effort required to ask for their votes. But political analysts said that in this year's conservative political climate, Democratic candidates are so fearful of seeming to curry favor with poor, inner-city and welfare-dependent blacks that they are avoiding direct campaign pitches to all black voters.

"Nobody's been here to tell me why I should vote," said Constance Williams, 24, who said that she lives in an apartment near the intersection. "I'd be interested if someone was interested in me. But, far as I can tell, nobody cares. So why should I?"

If fear of seeming to be aligned with Williams and others like her prevents Democrats from seeking black votes, the result may lead to lower black turnout overall--a potentially fatal development for nearly every Democratic candidate.

Furthermore, political analysts said, Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates might avoid potential midterm losses if they stopped running away from the broad support of African Americans, whom numerous pollsters identify as among the party's most loyal supporters.

Indeed, here in Pennsylvania as in other states where Democrats are waging hand-to-hand combat with Republican challengers, high black turnout could provide the winning edge for Democrats. But local and national observers said that the Democratic Party is doing little to motivate blacks to participate in large enough numbers to make a difference. Instead, the party is courting segments of the white voting population that has been turning away from the Democratic message of big government.

"There is a lot of concern about the flight of white male voters out of our party but that overlooks the fact that there is a significant African American vote out there that's being ignored," said state Sen. Chaka Fattah, Democratic nominee for a House seat from Pennsylvania's 2nd Congressional District, which includes most of Philadelphia.

Fattah is virtually assured of winning his race over Republican Lawrence R. Watson, who is running uphill in a district where Democrats comprise 81% of registered voters. Yet he is concerned about the impact of low black voter turnout on the election chances of other Democrats.

"I just don't see enough emphasis within the party on building enthusiasm within the African American community," Fattah said.

Others are equally distressed by the failure of Democrats to campaign aggressively in black neighborhoods across the nation.

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said that as he has focused on races across the nation he has heard black political workers complain that Democratic Party leaders have not given them the resources needed to get black voters to the polls.

He added that contrary to media and political talk of a unified black vote, "the black vote, such as it is, is not a national vote" because large numbers of black voters are concentrated in 21 or 22 states.

"I've heard complaints from New York, where there is the largest number of black voters, that they're being ignored," said Bositis. "The same can be said of California, where percentage-wise, blacks are a small number but an important element because they tend to vote at a greater rate than other minority groups. The black votes in Texas and Florida are keys to those races, but little is being done to court them."

A Democratic National Committee official in Washington said that the party supports all Democratic candidates and values black voters. But he acknowledged that it is unlikely the party will make national campaign pitches exclusively to blacks.

Party Chairman David Wilhelm had proposed that the party spend a relatively large amount to purchase advertisements on black and Latino radio stations in an attempt to boost minority turnout. But the White House prefers to use the money for a national television campaign touting Clinton's record, a senior party official said.

The White House view seems to be influenced by some Democratic pollsters who have argued that black turnout should not be the party's primary focus this year. Instead, they have said, it should concentrate on wooing white voters--particularly lower-income, older, working-class whites, who have been turned off by Clinton's performance.

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