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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION

Union chief rails at racism

He says members should set aside bias and vote for Obama.

August 27, 2008|Christi Parsons and Rick Pearson | Chicago Tribune

DENVER — In a vigorous, salty-tongued tirade, the leader of a powerful Democratic union acknowledged Tuesday that some of his members might not vote for Barack Obama because of his race.

"You can't vote for Barack Obama because he's black?" Gerald McEntee, chief of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, demanded during a meeting of Illinois delegates to the Democratic convention. "That's his color, and that is bull . . . . "

The delegates leaped to their feet in a standing ovation.

Unions will be "in the [out] house" for the next four years if Obama doesn't win, McEntee predicted, and union members had better understand that and set aside racial bias.

But McEntee was hardly the only Democrat wrestling with the race question as Obama moved toward becoming the party's first black nominee.

Race has been a periodic issue in the campaign. Now it is prominent again, as Democrats argue in sometimes agonized terms over whether Obama's difficulty making inroads with rural, white and older voters is caused in part by race.

Obama trails McCain among white voters in several critical swing states, according to the latest research from Quinnipiac University. In Florida, white voters favor McCain 55% to 35%; in Ohio, 49% to 38%; and in Pennsylvania, 47% to 43%.

Former President Carter said this week that he thinks race has something to do with that, along with the reluctance of some Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters to transfer allegiance to Obama. Race has affected the Democratic Party since the Civil Rights era, he said.

"In some voters, it will continue to be an issue," Carter told PBS' NewsHour. "And it has been ever since [Barry] Goldwater ran against [Lyndon] Johnson in 1964. . . . And that's the reason that the Republican Party has been so successful in the South."

Some Democrats dispute that. Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic political strategist with a specialty in rural and Southern voters, notes that John F. Kerry and Al Gore also trailed among white rural voters. "If Barack loses by that amount, they'll say it's racism," he said. Saunders thinks the real problem is that, like Kerry and Gore before him, Obama is not sufficiently addressing the anxieties of the working class.

Still, in the Democratic convention's host community, it is not hard to find voters who speak candidly about the role race plays in their decision-making. Guy Harvey and some friends, for example, drove north from Castle Rock to the Denver suburbs last weekend to shop for Western wear.

Harvey is a Republican who said the country is not ready for Obama. One of his friends, who did not give his name, shouted a more blunt reason for supporting McCain.

"He's white," the friend said. "I'm voting for him."

McEntee plans to confront that attitude head on and "fight our own members" to win crucial states.

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Chicago Tribune correspondent Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.

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