Is Kerry Trying Hard Enough to Woo Minorities?

Sen. John Kerry confers with the Rev. Jesse Jackson

Sen. John Kerry confers with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the annual Rainbow/PUSH convention in Chicago, June 29, 2004. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Nearly half a year's gone by since John Kerry shared a stage one very cold Iowa night with his Democratic rivals. The final debate before the Iowa caucuses was titled "Brown and Black," a showcase for the candidate's views on minorities. On that night, Kerry tried to rise above the politics of race and ethnicity, declaring "the problem is not just of black and brown, it's one of poor people, it's one of power in America."

But Kerry's own bid for power may very well depend on how many blacks and browns go to the polls and vote for him. In the last presidential election, nine out of 10 black voters and nearly two-thirds of Hispanics chose Al Gore over George W. Bush. Kerry's campaign needs to maintain these shares among minorities while increasing their turnout.

Yet in recent weeks, both African American and Latino leaders have complained that Kerry is taking their vote too much for granted. They say Kerry's campaign staffing hardly reflects the importance of these constituencies to his ultimate success.

Kerry tried making amends with both groups during an end-of-June campaign swing timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His main pitch to African Americans came before a mostly black audience attending the annual conference of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition in Chicago. Things got off to a sleepy start. Maybe it was because everyone was still having breakfast in the big convention hall. Or maybe it was the sense that the scarcity of blacks on Kerry's staff reflected a more general neglect. Jackson introduced Kerry saying: "There's in him a pattern of struggle." Jackson's delivery was so uncharacteristically flat and devoid of enthusiasm that it bordered on mumbling.

Things didn't get much livelier when Kerry launched into a wonkish speech detailing proposals for easier access to higher education. There was some polite applause, but Kerry seemed to sense he was not connecting. He put aside his text and served up a potpourri of his best stump speech applause lines. The clapping suddenly sounded more heartfelt, and after about 10 minutes of crowd-pleasing, Kerry had generated enough enthusiasm to plow through the rest of his 50-minute, eat-your-spinach speech. At one telling point he even paused and apologized for being so long-winded.

Still, Kerry scored some points with the crowd. It helped that he'd also announced the appointment of more African Americans to his retinue. Several who heard him said he was better than they'd expected. The praise did not match what Kerry had heard the day before in Baltimore from Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah Cummings, who'd declared "I support John Kerry with everything I've got." But Kerry could probably conclude as he left Chicago that he had mended some fences with African Americans, and that he should never, ever drop a heavy policy speech on any audience before noon.

A few hours later, Kerry gave the closing address at the National Council of La Raza's annual conference in Phoenix. He got a boisterous reception, with thunderous applause and standing ovations for his promises to back legislation making it easier for undocumented immigrants to legalize their residency in the United States. And — surprise — he named a Latino, Jose Villareal, to be one of his campaign's national co-chairs. He even laid a few words of gringo-accented Spanish on the crowd. So far, so good.

Then Kerry undid at least some of the goodwill the Latino crowd had showered on him. In an interview after the speech with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo, Kerry unexpectedly came down hard on the question of driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. He said he wouldn't automatically give someone who's been in the United States for a year illegally "all the rights and privileges of being here legally… I think that's wrong... that defeats the purposes of the law."

Was it the former federal prosecutor in Kerry that prompted this law-and-order stance? Was he trying to avoid saying something that might end up in a Bush-Cheney attack ad? Whatever the reason, his tough position was immediately seen as a betrayal by Latino leaders, who've raised the acquisition of a driver's license to the level of a civil right in many states.

Cecilia Munoz, La Raza vice president for policy, said that Kerry's driver's license remarks left folks at La Raza "disappointed and perplexed," adding: "What could have been a grand slam of a day for Sen. Kerry was instead maybe a double play."

A Kerry spokesman was quick to point out that driver's licenses are granted by states, not the federal government. He also said Kerry had no intention of backing efforts to rein in the dozen states that already grant licenses to the undocumented. Still, for at least some Latinos, Kerry's stance on licenses may prove a greater negative than the positives he's garnered calling for immigration reform.

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