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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Lieberman 'Clears Air' With Blacks

August 16, 2000|JANET HOOK and MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Hoping to patch up an emerging fissure in the Democratic base, soon-to-be vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday and quickly moved to mend fences with black Democrats concerned about his positions on affirmative action, school vouchers and other issues.

In a well-received speech to the party's black caucus, Lieberman said he had been misrepresented as a supporter of Proposition 209, the 1996 California initiative that banned state-funded affirmative action programs.

"I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action," Lieberman said to thunderous applause from the crowd at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. "Why? Because history and current reality make it necessary."

In his speech and at a private meeting beforehand, Lieberman won over the African American politician who had been most outspoken in questioning his record: Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). She gave Lieberman the endorsement she had been threatening to withhold.

"It clears the air," said Waters after his speech. "He has said enough. He has done enough. I feel comfortable in campaigning for him."

Lieberman acknowledged that he shared concerns raised in the mid-1990s that some affirmative action programs had turned into quota systems. But he denied he had supported Proposition 209 and explained how his view had come to be misrepresented.

He said that during a news conference in March 1995, a reporter read him the text of the initiative. He responded that the initiative sounded like "a basic statement of human rights policy" and added that he supported affirmative action but not quotas. But he later declined requests to endorse the initiative, saying he worried about the effects it would have if implemented.

Later that summer, he added, he gave a speech on the Senate floor in support of President Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" approach.

Still, Lieberman's efforts Tuesday may be just the first steps in a long journey the senator from Connecticut may have to travel to build bridges to the Democratic Party's core constituencies. Many of them know little about Lieberman, and some don't like what they had heard so far.

Lieberman on Tuesday also made a conciliatory gesture to Hollywood activists rankled by his crusade against sex and violence in youth entertainment. He attended a reception at the Beverly Hills home of television and movie producer David Salzman.

Lieberman also may have work to do with members of teacher groups, who are edgy about his willingness to experiment with school vouchers, and labor unions, who are at odds with his views on trade.

"There are a lot of different groups that are going to have disagreements with some of Lieberman's positions," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles). "Some are going to ask tough questions about his views."

The tough questions began most publicly among black Democrats, a vast and crucial voting bloc that is among the most loyal constituencies in the Democratic Party; typically, 90% of the African American vote goes to the Democratic ticket.

It remains unclear how far black voters' doubts about Lieberman extend beyond the convention hall. The latest poll found 44% of blacks surveyed had a favorable impression of him and only 2% had an unfavorable view--but 46% did not know enough about him to have an impression.

Waters said she is not alone in wanting assurances about Lieberman's views. "Many delegates are just unclear" about his stand on key social issues, she said.

In a political contest in which Al Gore and his Republican rival, George W. Bush, are competing for swing voters, it may actually help the Democratic ticket among centrists to be portrayed as "too conservative." But Gore needs this convention to solidify his hold on the Democratic base.

Cracks began to appear in that base in recent days, as Waters and other blacks voiced concern about reports Lieberman had supported Proposition 209 and about his support for school voucher experiments.

As soon as Lieberman arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday, his first order of business was to huddle with Gore campaign officials and black party leaders, including Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, to discuss how to handle these concerns.

Before Lieberman spoke to the black caucus, Herman arranged for him to meet privately with Waters, who urged him to directly confront the questions about his record.

He did so in his speech to the black caucus. But first, as he greeted the group, Lieberman singled out Waters for recognition, leading a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the congresswoman, who turned 62 Tuesday.

In his speech, Lieberman said he has long felt "rapport" with the African American community, detailing his efforts to register black voters in the South during the 1960s as a college student and his work fighting for civil rights in Connecticut and Congress.

Lieberman also addressed his support for some experimental school voucher programs, saying he only backed those that did not take money from the general education budget. But, he added, his top goal is improving the public school system.

And he said he would always defer to Gore, who opposes vouchers.

"When we get to the White House, when the president decides, the vice president will enthusiastically support," said Lieberman.

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