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Democratic Candidates Skewer Bush in Appeal to Black Voters

Differences between liberals and centrists take back seat to calls for change at Rainbow / PUSH Coalition event.

June 23, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking the support of black voters largely put aside their differences at a forum here Sunday and united around the theme that the Bush administration has been a nightmare for minorities, the poor and the working class.

Speaking at the annual gathering of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Democrats received great applause when lambasting President Bush on nearly every front -- from his opposition to affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan to his "go-it-alone" foreign policy style to the thus far fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

With a Supreme Court decision on the affirmative action case expected this week, several of the office-seekers praised the university's policy. A fiery Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio led the way by pledging that as president, he would pen executive orders to "enshrine" affirmative action -- not only in higher education but in housing and other areas as well.

"We deserve a president of the United States who doesn't call fairness to minorities a special preference," added Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.

Kucinich helped set the anti-Bush tone for the afternoon by blending together his many criticisms of the current administration.

"There weren't any weapons of mass destruction. We knew and we know the war was a fraud," he said. "I've been a mayor [of Cleveland] and I understand where the weapons are, Mr. Bush. You come to urban America -- we'll show you weapons of mass destruction. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction.... And lying to the American people is a weapon of mass destruction."

Of Bush's handling of North Korea and its nuclear program, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said, "This is breathtaking ineptitude."


Divisions Within Party

A fissure in the party has deepened in recent months between Clinton-style Democrats who insist that centrism is the way to the White House in 2004, and those who contend that moderates have cost the party support from its traditional liberal bases -- including labor unions, minorities and the working class.

During most of the gathering before an overwhelmingly African American audience of 400, the divide all but vanished.

Although Jackson has seen his influence within the Democratic Party diminish in recent years, he arguably is still the nation's preeminent African American leader. And the seven candidates at the forum -- including the moderates -- all delivered messages tailored to the left-leaning audience.

Said presidential hopeful and former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun: "We're united in a single goal -- to get rid of George W. Bush."

Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and John Edwards of North Carolina cited scheduling conflicts and did not attend the Sunday event, which began with two-minute opening statements from the candidates, followed by questions from a panel of journalists and closing remarks.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has led the call for the party to return to its roots, was one of several to criticize Bush on the foundering economy, the nation's deficit and on Bush's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts, which he and Gephardt have promised to repeal in their entirety if elected.

"What people are going to say is, 'I'll take the jobs, education and health care because I didn't get the president's tax cut' " anyway, Dean said.


'War on People'

Several candidates lamented the fact that there are more black men in America in prison (about 900,000) than in college (about 600,000), and they criticized the long-running war on drugs as a failure that has devastated minority communities.

"This isn't a war on drugs, it's a war on people," said Moseley Braun, adding that she would seek to allow felons who had served their sentences to regain some rights, such as the right to vote.

The differences between the moderates and the liberals did surface occasionally throughout the afternoon, first in a comment by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who referred to his failed run as vice president with Al Gore in 2000 and the contentious Florida recount and Supreme Court decisions that went against them.

"We've got to defeat George Bush," the centrist lawmaker said. "I know I can do it. Why? Because Al Gore and I already did it."

The Rev. Al Sharpton raised the issue once more, saying that he respected Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson but was not a Jeffersonian or Jacksonian Democrat, hinting that this was because of their views on blacks.

"I'm a Jesse Jackson Democrat," Sharpton said. "I'm a Martin Luther King Democrat. There are a lot of kinds of Democrats here. We need to define what Democrats we are."

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