Hustling the Hood
Even by its own muckraking standards, the October 11 issue of the black-oriented Broward Times was unsettling, particularly to Democrats. "Are We Just Stupid?" screamed a headline across the front page over a story about the Tampa lawyer who hopes to dethrone Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday: Bill McBride. The story, by Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Keith Clayborne, slammed the candidate.
Inside, atop the lead editorial by columnist Chris Hood, was the headline: "McBride... a six pack tractor pull kind of guy... don't even waste your vote." In the piece, Hood wrote: "Bill, as it turns out, knows nothing about black economic development, not a clue... zero... The fact that this dumpster of a politician was even in the race for governor is an insult to blacks."
Added another columnist, Elgin Jones: "The state and local democratic party appears to be scratching their head with one hand and pimp slapping blacks with the other. McBride's apparent lack of concern for issues impacting blacks is just the tip of the kicking boot."
Both in print and in person, Clayborne makes it clear that he supports Bush. "This is the first time I have ever endorsed a Republican in my life," comments Clayborne, who twice met with McBride before the September primary. "The bottom line is, McBride doesn't know anything. He doesn't have a message for anybody."
A significant part of the journalists' disenchantment with McBride, which is shared by some other South Florida blacks, relates to the candidate's choice of County Commission Chairwoman Lori Parrish for his campaign chairwoman in Broward County. For months, Parrish has led the charge to unseat county Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant, who is black and has support among local African-Americans.
That issue came to a head during an October 7 meeting with ministers at Mount Olive Baptist Church. Earlier this year, the Mount Olive minister, the Rev. Dr. Mack King Carter, had said blacks should consider voting for Jeb Bush. At the October gathering, Carter stayed seated when the congregation rose to applaud McBride. Though in the end Carter didn't support the Republican, neither was he warm to McBride. Congregants "should make up their own minds," he said.
After the meeting, McBride met with a group of ministers at Mount Olive. Donzell Varner, assistant pastor at another Broward Baptist Church, Mount Bethel, attended that gathering. He asked McBride to intervene with Parrish on Oliphant's behalf. According to a story in the Miami Herald the next day, McBridelater said that he didn't intend to tell Parrish what to do but that he would "talk to Parrish, and to the extent I can help in some way, I will."
Clayborne calls that comment "an insult." Varner says it was adequate, provided that McBride follows up. Moreover, though he supports McBride, Varner calls the candidate "new to the black community."
"My concern would be that, if he were elected, that he would have an agenda more in line with the black community," Varner says. "McBride has a marvelous opportunity to take the lead on behalf of [blacks]. I don't know whether he'll do that."
As much as many black voters believe that Bush -- with his predictable agenda of cutting taxes for those who least need it and cutting or privatizing services for those who need them most -- should be sent packing, more than a few are also skeptical about the great white hope (McBride) being sold to them by their leaders. As important in some minds as whose butt is warming the gubernatorial throne is, where will the people's future be when the political smoke clears?
Some local black activists are cynical about this, even though they support McBride. "I think there are some [leaders] who are more interested in being invited to the governor's mansion twice a month than in making sure education and health-care issues are being dealt with in this community," observes Henry Crespo, president of the Miami-Dade Democratic Black Caucus. "What we hear is, 'We got to get Jeb out. He's no good for us.' That works with traditional Democrats who follow traditional leaders. Outside of that pocket, we have a problem. There is a core of people in this community who are disillusioned with the process, and they have to be reached."
Sherman Henry, who heads a union representing custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers in the Miami-Dade school system, concurs. "The [candidates] get one or two people who are supposed to be the village chief, and we're supposed to follow them," he complains. "Despite the constant rhetoric, I haven't seen anything substantive. I don't see the politicians talking to the unemployed in Overtown. You're promised the pie in the sky, but the history is, you may get some crumbs."
McBride's bland personality has failed to spur black voters into supporting him, says Addie Greene, the only black member of the Palm Beach County Commission. "I'm hearing so many people... say he has no personality," she says. "But the question I ask is whether they want someone who looks pretty on television or someone who's intelligent and who will be a great governor." McBride's dry style is similar to former Gov. Lawton Chiles, Greene says, and some have had trouble warming up to his simple approach.
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.
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.
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!"
Curry grins. "I'm going to second that emotion," he adds. "I don't mean to riot, but if they start messing with our votes, we need to take to the streets. This is not about the governorship. This is about four more years of what we can't stand!" Curry introduces Reno, and it's as if the seats are equipped with firecrackers that simultaneously explode. When the cheering dies down, Reno speaks. She seems energized by the thunder and fury of New Birth's bishop, her shaking hands making the mike wobble on the giant screens. She promises to "fight to make sure the vote is right. Before we start the holy war, let's go to the polls early on Election Day. And if it's not right, then we raise Cain!"
McBride also seems transformed and at his most militant. "I do not stand where Jeb Bush stands on almost anything," he intones, lamenting a Republican approach to social services, creating "a private system for the rich and a public system for the poor." A woman in the crowd exclaims, "Say it!" Then Curry comes back on. "The only way Bill McBride will win over Jeb Bush is if we turn out in massive numbers," he urges. "No doubt about it."
The music swells again, this time an islander's reggae tune. For the second time in her political career, Reno is dancing onstage, awkwardly swinging her arms. McBride begins to swing his hips too, actually managing to make Reno look graceful. Moments later, as the song finishes and an inspired crowd disperses, a large woman with long braids waits patiently for the crowd to clear. Ernestine Petit, an administrative assistant at Norland High School and a local NAACP worker, offers her assessment. She doesn't think people have any illusions that they will be gaining a warrior for the cause in McBride, but he's better than the alternative: "Before today, I was going to vote for him anyway," she shrugs. "I didn't know anything about him. My 12-year-old son watched the governor's debate on TV. He said he wasn't impressed with either one of them."
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