Hustling the Hood

Does it matter to blacks which wealthy, middle-aged white guy is Florida's next governor?

Daryl Jones, who garnered nearly 12 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial primary and is now on the McBride bandwagon, says it's a political reality that people involved in campaigns will have multiple motives. "What you've got is the endorsement of the leadership, and some of them do real work, and some don't," he assesses. "But much of the real work is done by the grassroots." Jones loyally brushes off a criticism of McBride earlier leveled by black leaders upset at his choice of Tom Rossin, a little-known white state senator from Royal Palm Beach, as his running mate. Many felt state Senator Jones, who easily had the best grasp of state government of the three Democratic candidates, deserved the nod. "He didn't offer it to me," Jones admits, lapsing into silence before adding: "But I had said when I was running I wasn't interested in the job, mostly so my supporters would know I was serious [about running]."

If his campaign is anything to judge by, McBride is not going to be the firebrand of social justice this community could really use. His strategy, aimed at those well-fed moderates in Central Florida, is to present himself as a kinder, gentler version of the status quo. He's a likable if bland character who's savvy enough to target his neighborly little stories to the audience he's selling to -- Bible verses for black folks, fond remembrances of summers spent hawking pastrami at a popular New York "Borscht belt" hotel for elderly Jews, patriotic yarns for veterans.

But Republicans and some Democrats rightly criticize McBride for not providing many specifics of how he would deliver on the many vague promises he's made throughout the campaign. "It angers me that [McBride] would think he was a shoo-in," the Broward Times' Clayborne says.

Henry Crespo, president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus, says some people will need to be coaxed to the polls
Steve Satterwhite
Henry Crespo, president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus, says some people will need to be coaxed to the polls

Which leads to the natural question of how successful McBride might be, or even how inclined he might be, to battle Republican hegemony in Tallahassee. That means it will be up to black leaders to consistently push him in the right direction -- or, rather, to the left. To emphasize issues important to this community, such as voting rights for reformed felons and empowerment-zone funding, Haitian-American legislator Phillip Brutus, who has campaigned with McBride locally, says that just having a Democrat in the governor's mansion will help stop the majority party from offhandedly snuffing out minority-sponsored bills. "You need balance," he says simply. "Absolute power corrupts, and we've seen that in Tallahassee. They've got the power, and they are going crazy with it. That's why we are working tooth and nail to get the vote out."

In the end, Brutus' argument is the one that will motivate most black Democrats to the polls, even if they are unsure of what exactly they will end up with, says Max Rameau, leader of Brothers of the Same Mind. "People are genuinely scared of the Bush brothers," he allows. "They see them as mean-spirited and working against their interests. We are really voting on our fear, not our hope."

In Florida, slightly more than 1 million registered voters are black -- 11 percent of the state's total. In recent years, this group has proved itself an increasingly valuable commodity in a moderate state characterized by huge classes of swing voters and low turnout. Black voters in 1994 helped incumbent Lawton Chiles barely stop Jeb Bush's first gubernatorial campaign. They factored large in the 2000 election, when their unprecedented turnout (300,000 voters more than in the '96 election) almost made Al Gore president. And with a mere handful of poll points between Bush and McBride, they will matter this year too. Nearly every pundit, pollster, and newspaper has declared that McBride cannot win unless he can persuade a huge percentage of disillusioned black voters (who overwhelmingly picked Reno in the primary) to come out one more time. If, as expected, only 50 to 60 percent of all voters come to the polls November 5, a large black turnout could mean an extra couple of percentage points in the Democratic column.

To that end, the McBride campaign has hooked into the established networks of black power throughout the state, hoping these gatekeepers can motivate their constituents to the polls. Blacks represent nearly 20 percent of registered voters in Miami-Dade and 15 percent in Broward. The bulk of those are Democrats. Democratic U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, an African-American who has long represented South Florida in Congress, is an outspoken McBride supporter. "In 2000, blacks were 14 percent of the population but 16 percent of the electorate, the first time that happened," says Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor. "One reason Carrie Meek's stake is so high [in the McBride campaign] is because in 2000, she was out there and her machine was out there getting votes for Gore."

As strategists, the McBride team couldn't do much better than the Meek dynasty. Meek draws a lot of water in this end of Florida, and her son Kendrick, whom she contrived to have inherit her congressional seat this November, has proved an able combatant in the Democratic cause. State Sen. Kendrick Meek is one of the few Democrats who has consistently managed to cause Jeb Bush a great deal of heartburn. In early 2000, when Bush unilaterally announced that he would end state affirmative-action programs and replace them with his polemical One Florida plan, Meek and another black legislator staged a sit-in in his office to force him to hold public meetings about it. An angry Bush was caught on a reporter's tape telling his staff to "kick their asses out," a slip that continues to haunt him two years later.

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