Democratic Hopefuls Court Black Mayors' Group

Many Democratic presidential hopefuls paid a visit National Conference of Black Mayors in Baton Rouge, La. The candidates hit many hot issues: Hurricane Katrina, taxes, foreign policy, poverty and the environment.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an event that many Democratic presidential candidates did not want to miss. They attended the National Conference of Black Mayors, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. One number explains why. The mayors in this organization represent 38 million people, which is a lot of potential votes.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was the first candidate to descend on Baton Rouge. He gave a casual talk about Hurricane Katrina, taxes and foreign policy, and he made one big blanket promise to the black mayors.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Presidential Candidate): I want you to know that any efforts that I undertake will be on your side.

GREENE: Former Senator John Edwards was introduced by actor Danny Glover who gave Edwards a passionate endorsement. Edwards then spoke about confronting poverty and admitted he was promoting both his candidacy and his book.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): Now, I didn't come here planning to try to sell books, but this is my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EDWARDS: There you go. Hey, I might as well do it, right? It just came - just came out a couple of days ago. It's called "Ending Poverty in America."

GREENE: Then there was Hillary Clinton. It has been noted that the senator, like her husband, adapts her speaking style to the part of the country she's in.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I think we got to deal with our environmental issues including global climate change and anybody who has a coastal state like New York, like Louisiana, like so many represented here, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

GREENE: Clinton talked a lot about policy and reminded mayors of programs championed by her husband. In polls, Senator Clinton is neck and neck with Barack Obama. His campaign carefully stage-managed his appearance. In fact, they moved his speech away from the conference downtown to historically black Southern University. As students arrive, the chant of we want Barack began.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Group: (Chanting) We want Barack.

GREENE: Obama stood alone onstage and relied on a teleprompter. He talked about healing wounds in the black community and strengthening families. He said government can do some of the work, but individuals must step up.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Too many fathers think that responsibility ends at conception. When they had not yet realized that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child, but the courage to raise one. We know that our families are in crisis. That's a self-inflicted wound.

GREENE: Reactions were mixed. Mayor Michael Wolfe of Hempstead, Texas said Obama was right to challenge the black community.

Mayor MICHAEL WOLFE (Democrat, Hempstead, Texas): You heard the old saying, the truth hurts, and if the shoe fits, then you wear it. Well, I think it's time that we as African-American people stand up to the truth.

GREENE: But Heather McTeer-Hudson, Greenville, Mississippi's mayor, said she was more impressed with Hillary Clinton's knowledge of policy.

Mayor HEATHER McTEER-HUDSON (Democrat, Mississippi): I'm looking to see where's my help going to come from, you know, in the next administration - after all the lights have gone down, after all the people have gone away.

GREENE: Obama and Clinton dominated conversation at this conference and many, especially black women, seem to be soul searching.

Ms. EILEEN FRANK (President, J.P. West, Inc.): This election is turning out to be a moral dilemma for me.

GREENE: That's Eileen Frank, a New Orleans native who runs an insurance brokerage firm in New York that works with mayors. Frank planned to vote for Clinton who has more experience and she's still might. But as a black woman, Frank said, she feels some obligation to Obama.

Ms. FRANK: If black people can't rally behind Obama and support him, then how can we expect that other people to rally behind him and support him.

GREENE: Frank said she doesn't know if Clinton and Obama will split the black vote, but she said for now, the two candidates are splitting the black community's heart.

David Greene, NPR News.

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