Howard Dean and the Battle for Black Voters
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Today, the Democratic National Committee begins its 2006 African-American Leadership Summit. Black political, civic and religious leaders will gather to talk strategy with party leaders. This year there's a chance that the Democrats could win back majorities in both the House and Senate, and the African-American vote will help determine whether that happens or not.
NPR's Tony Cox spoke earlier with DNC Chairman Howard Dean. Dean divided the summit's agenda into three main areas.
Mr. HOWARD DEAN (Chairman, Democratic National Committee): The first is traditional civil rights concerns. The right to vote is under attack by the Bush administration and Republicans everywhere with these ID laws, these machines that don't work properly and so forth and so on. The second is the usual economic issues that we are deeply concerned about: health insurance, how to get your kids to college and how to pay for it, jobs and so forth. And those are traditional issues for all Americans, but they have particular resonance in the African-American community.
The third I would call family issues. We know that in the black community we still have an enormously high rate of teenage unemployment; that needs to be fixed. We have some programs that I pioneered in my state in the poor community which are transplantable everywhere in America - helping parents to be the kind of parents they really want to be so their children can grow up in a safe and strong environment.
COX: Why is it that domestic issues seem to be the only things that are discussed when we talk about national partisan politics when it comes to the black community? There doesn't appear to be much emphasis placed on international concerns. Are there none?
Mr. DEAN: Yes there are. Darfur is expected to get a lot of attention. But the biggest issue in terms of foreign policy in the black community is also the biggest issue in the entire Democratic Party, which is Iraq. That sort of a given, it's sort of like you don't even need to discuss that because everybody is on the same page on that one.
The purpose of this particular summit is to focus on things that have not been done in the past. One of those is an informal program that we have in the Democratic National Committee called From the Table to the Ticket. One of the attractive things about having this in Michigan is that Michigan has a terrific Vietnam veteran who happens to be African-American running for attorney general who just won the primary. Now we need to get that guy elected attorney general.
We can't simply have this be the old promises that the Democratic Party is going to do X and Y for the black community. We've been a wonderful welcoming party, but that is not good enough 40 years later. We need our tickets to look like the rest of America if we're going to win.
COX: When you talk about a place at the table, which is interesting, it leads right into my next question because there are blacks who are running for places at the table in the Republican Party and some very prominent positions in Maryland, in Pennsylvania and in Ohio, as I'm sure that you know. How do you as Democrats convince African-American voters to cast their ballots for their party and not their race?
Mr. DEAN: Well, the African-American electorate has become increasingly sophisticated. And, you know, I know these candidates and some of them do not represent the views of many in the African-American community. I don't think any of the African-American people who are running in those major offices are going to win a majority of votes in the black community.
You know, the truth is that I think the color of your skin matters but I think what people believe matters more. We are now seeing black candidates in the South win in majority white districts. So I think those days - I think this is an area that the parties in general are behind the curve. I think America has progressed faster than politicians have progressed.
COX: Now you've met some resistance inside the party for wanting to revitalize the Democrats' presence in the South, which has lacked in recent years, of course. What are you doing to forge relationships with black political and civic leaders who could really help solidify that presence in the South and can you do it in time for November?
Mr. DEAN: We can't do it in time for November and we may not be able to do it in time for 2008. But if we don't start now, we won't be doing it in 2028. I'm actually calling you from Charleston, South Carolina. We need to be everywhere in this country. You do not write off a group of people who are going to be your boss, even those people who don't vote for us are still are boss. They pay our salaries and they hire us, or they're part of the job interview process.
So my view is you've got to be everywhere and you've got - if you want to be a strong national party somebody in South Carolina has to say: I'm a Democrat, I'm proud to be a Democrat, and here's why I'm a Democrat. So for us to write off the South makes no sense whatever. There will be no region in this country that I will write off as chairman of this party.
COX: Let me ask you this, Chairman Dean, as chairman of the party, the issue of leadership or the lack of leadership within the black community is something that has been discussed a great deal. As a person looking from the outside in, how does the party look at the question of leadership from the black community and how do you decide who to listen to and who not to listen to?
Mr. DEAN: Well, first of all, let me just say that is a great question and a very timely one. I believe 2006 is the most important election in African-American history, because for the first time nationally, if the Democrats take the Congress, we'll have the opportunity to have folks who understand the community, don't have to have it everything explained to them, as chairs of major committees.
It's not that these folks are going to run out and put all the money in the black community, but you're not going to have to go to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and explain why it is that you need the renewal of a tax provision that helps minority businesses buy radio stations. That kind of stuff makes a huge difference, and that will be elected power that comes directly from the African-American voters who are responsible for electing a Democratic Congress.
In some ways, this is the opportunity to cash in on 40 years of loyal support and the seniority system and have people like Charley Rangel as the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, who understands how hard it is for working people everywhere, whatever color they are, but particularly for African-Americans.
COX: Chairman Dean, thank you very much.
Mr. DEAN: Thank you for the opportunity.
CHIDEYA: That was Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean speaking with NPR's Tony Cox.
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