Hustling the Hood

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

This year, Kendrick Meek, working closely with the teachers' unions (his wife, Leslie, is an attorney for United Teachers of Dade), devised a referendum campaign to require the state to reduce school class sizes. The campaign succeeded wildly, and the ballot measure is considered likely to pass in November, despite the best efforts of Republicans to squash it. It prompted another embarrassing Bush slip, in which he was recorded by a reporter telling a Republican audience that he had "devious plans" to undercut the expensive referendum if voters pass it.

But Meek's class-size initiative has also proved a clever and effective offense for McBride. It's an issue that will ensure a higher turnout among traditionally Democratic-leaning voters. It has focused the vague dissatisfaction of Florida's electorate on the state's dismal record on public education. It has forced "the education governor" to defend his controversial reforms of the system and allowed McBride to run basically a one-issue campaign. That's a dangerous game, though, as most voters care about more than one issue. And black voters in South Florida are a discouraged lot who are tired of getting out the vote only to have it snatched away by a bumbling (and some feel corrupt) bureaucracy. They saw what the Democratic Party elite did to their candidate Janet Reno, undercutting her at every turn because her Clinton administration record was considered a liability in the general election. Also, McBride didn't initially endear himself to black voters by so quickly declaring himself the winner of the primary.

In late September, the McBride campaign suddenly discovered the South Florida black voter. Beginning the first week of October, he; his running mate, Rossin; or his wife, Alex Sink, have made regular appearances in black churches, union halls, and community centers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. McBride even opened a token campaign office in Liberty City, albeit less than three weeks before the election. But his people know that to energize the base, they must rely on the local politicians and black ministers.


For energy, you go to Frederica Wilson. Representative Wilson, who will shortly inherit the Senate seat being vacated by Kendrick Meek, is easily the snappiest dresser (her blindingly bright suits and cowboy hats are legendary) in the state legislature and an adept politician. At Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Carol City, Wilson stands in front of the congregation in a cream and gold form-fitting outfit, and a stylish Sunday hat decked with three huge flowers. Eyes smiling beneath her mascara, Wilson professes to have "grown to love" McBride. It might be true, although a much shorter courtship is hard to imagine. "We've got to get Jeb Bush out of politics!" she says, revealing the hard kernel from which this new love has sprung. "You've got to help us by getting up early, brushing your teeth, and being first in line to vote."

McBride, who comes on after the crowd has been primed by Wilson and Janet Reno, knows his cue. After delivering a stump speech heavy on religion and leavened by long-winded preacher jokes, he pleads, "Judge me by my friends," pointing to supporters Wilson, Reno, state Rep. Phillip Brutus, and the church's pastor, the Rev. Arthur Jackson III. McBride also appeals to the congregation's appreciation for civil rights, noting that great leaders have fought for black suffrage, and "if you don't vote, you can't be counted."


The last church on McBride's agenda on a day in early October is perhaps the most influential, to judge by the size and luxury of the $10 million New Birth Baptist complex in Opa-locka. And by the motivating power possessed by its pastor, Bishop Victor T. Curry, whose congregation has grown to almost 15,000 members in the past decade. New Birth's chamber is built like a theater, with Curry and a crew of assistant pastors and the backup band a hot coal of energy at the bottom of the pit. Two huge screens on either side of the stage broadcast, alternately, closeups of Curry, crowd shots, and his talking points and Bible verses.

The bishop is almost apoplectic with the spirit. He wears a dark-blue robe with a floor-length black vest over it. He's breathing heavily, half-singing his preaching. Some of the women stand up and sway, waving their arms and shaking their heads in agreement. Slowly but smoothly, he turns the song from a strictly religious message to a political one. "Don't give up! Don't let George W. Bush make you quit... or Jeb," chants Curry. "Don't throw in the towel!" Here he actually throws a towel toward the band for emphasis, generating laughs.

As the music fades, Curry pauses for a moment to gulp some water. Placing both hands on the podium, he says, "We are almost in a state of emergency. You all know I don't normally go the political route in church, but I need to make an exception now." He introduces Athalie Range, Miami's first black commissioner and political godmother to many current politicians. The tiny 87-year-old climbs onto the stage, huge glasses dwarfing her thin face. "Let me tell you something, friends," she says sternly. "I don't want to be a renegade. But we're in a position now where we've got to fight a holy war. We were passive, and they stole the White House. If something happens with the vote this time, we need to start a holy war!"

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