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Trouble is brewing in New York

CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Black leaders say that if Clinton returns as senator, she'll need to heal racial wounds her campaign has inflicted.

May 25, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

Even as she continues her longshot presidential bid, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces a political rift in New York, where black leaders say her standing has dropped due to racially charged comments by her and her husband during the campaign.

African American elected officials and clerics based in New York City say Clinton will need to defuse resentment over the campaign's racial overtones if she returns to New York as U.S. senator.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem, said constituents recently phoned him because they wanted to demonstrate outside Bill Clinton's Harlem office against comments by the former president.

Michael Benjamin, a state assemblyman who represents parts of the Bronx, said his wife removed a photograph of Bill Clinton from her office wall -- an expression of the misgivings that some black New Yorkers feel.

Assemblyman Karim Camara of Brooklyn contributed $500 to Hillary Clinton's Senate reelection campaign in 2006 and described Bill Clinton as a political hero. He said: "Once the campaign is over there has to be a lot of work to heal the wounds. She needs to go back to the black churches she visited in the course of her campaign and have a frank conversation about who she is and how much the support of the black community means. There would not have been a first Clinton presidency in 1992 if not for the African American community."

Many of the officials back the presidential bid of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination, though they say they have long supported the Clintons, defending him in the past and supporting her Senate run.

Their sentiments reflect the peculiar arc of the 2008 campaign. Black voters were once central to the Clinton family's political identity and base of support. But that relationship has been strained by the emergence of a charismatic African American candidate who has been propelled by black voters.

"The Clintons have their die-hard fans who would never abandon them," said Eric Adams, a state senator who represents Brooklyn. "But there are those New Yorkers who feel there was a lot of insult, slight and disrespect toward an African American candidate, and it translated as a slight to the African American community."

Clinton's campaign declined to comment. In New York, she still enjoys the support of some high-profile black leaders. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel has endorsed Clinton, as has the state's first black governor, David Paterson. But both men have been critical of her recently.

Rangel told reporters this month that her claim she has the support of white voters was "the dumbest thing she could ever have said." Clinton later agreed with that.

Paterson recently told a radio show he saw "desperation" in Clinton's effort to count in her favor disputed delegates from Michigan and Florida. Clinton's dwindling chance of winning the nomination includes snagging as many Florida and Michigan delegates as possible.

As the campaign unfolded, both Clintons made comments that some black leaders deemed dismissive of Obama. There was Bill Clinton's suggestion that Obama's victory in South Carolina carried no more weight than Jesse Jackson's success there in the 1980s. Other sore points were Hillary Clinton's claim that she enjoys the support of "hard-working Americans, white Americans" and the credit she gave to President Lyndon Johnson -- rather than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- on civil rights legislation.

"There has been a consistent pattern of comments made by both Sen. Clinton and President Clinton from January until this moment that are deeply troubling to the African American community," said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, whose district is in Brooklyn. "That will require meaningful reconciliation and discussion when Sen. Clinton returns to New York."

The Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn said that any hurt feelings left by the campaign could be easily overcome.

"There are wounds, but I don't think they necessarily have to be that deep," Miller said. "They're deep wounds for people who never liked Hillary in the first place."

He encouraged her to be more of a presence in the city's neighborhoods.

"For her to heal those wounds, she would be well served either in public office or just in her private life by being herself and working toward those ideals that she's always espoused as a person."

African American leaders said she could repair frayed ties by visiting black churches, backing legislation that shows she is sensitive to conditions in black neighborhoods, and apologizing for comments she and her husband made that seemed to polarize voters and marginalize Obama.

"She has a problem," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a New York-based civil rights activist. "If she doesn't aggressively deal with the problem -- rather than sit in denial -- it will haunt her at home in her Senate race."

Clinton's Senate term ends in January 2013.

Some Democrats have mentioned that she could run for governor of New York if she isn't nominated for president.

That prospect unnerves some black leaders. They said they didn't want to see her challenge Paterson, who plans to run in 2010. With Paterson in the job, some black leaders want a definitive statement from Clinton that she would not subject him to a primary challenge -- and say they haven't gotten it yet.

Benjamin said: "I was pretty much appalled when supporters said one of her options was to run for governor. We have a governor. He's a black Democrat. It's not wise for them to challenge a black Democrat for governor.

"She should have come out and said a flat no, that folks were wrong, but I did not see that or hear that coming from her."

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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