What Black Vote?

The City’s African American Electorate is No Longer Predictable

The image of befuddled African Americans, standing in front of polling booths, handicapping the rat race to Gracie mansion, is deceiving. While the race illustrates a growing divide in the black community about how to best maintain influence, this electorate, some might argue, is not confused—it is rebellious. It has thrown out politics as usual and come of age.

What's going on?

There is no simple answer.

But a major concern for some African Americans is that none of the candidates in the September 11 Democratic primary—Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone—is black. All of the candidates are scrambling for the black vote. None may find it in this crucial bloc, because none have dominated black public opinion. And if African American New Yorkers truly take their cue from black leaders, as some contend, overwhelming support for any one mayoral hopeful seems out of the question because of a split.

High-profile leaders like David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of Harlem's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church, and NYPD Lieutenant Eric Adams, co-founder of the influential 100 Blacks in Law-Enforcement Who Care, have endorsed Green. Reverend Floyd Flake, the powerful pastor of the 10,000-member Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in southeast Queens—backed by a coalition of 10 elected officials, including city councilmembers, assembly members, and a state senator from the area—has declared his support for Hevesi. Brooklyn City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten, who is term-limited, is the only prominent black leader to endorse Vallone. The split became more evident after Congressman Charles Rangel and several black community leaders—anticipating an endorsement of Ferrer by Reverend Al Sharpton—threw their support behind the Latino politician.

Will their constituents follow suit? "I can tell you that none of us put any pressures on anybody to follow our lead," Rangel says. "It [the Harlem group's endorsement of Ferrer] wasn't something that was done with such emotional fervor that we are compelled to say to everyone, 'This is the right thing to do.' It just happened. Nothwithstanding the fact that some black leaders have personal relationships with the candidates, they were not under any pressure to break away from a coalition to endorse."

Rangel insists that there was no pressure. "There was no big concern about what anyone had done in terms of their endorsements. Dave Dinkins could say, 'Well, I know Mark Green, he was my commissioner and when I took a look at all the candidates I know him best.' Floyd Flake can say, 'Well, someone helped the Allen AME Church.' (That's normally the criteria that he's used to endorse a candidate.) As for Vallone, he would normally have received a lot of black support in the City Council because the black elected officials there know him."

Reverend Flake asserts that the black electorate is not confused over their leaders' disparate choices for mayor. "I think it reflects a state of maturation and that maturation was brought about by the reality that the paradigm of politics, as we've known it for the past 40 years, has shifted tremendously," asserts the former congressman. Flake cites the Los Angeles mayoral race between Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney James Hahn as an example. While Villaraigosa tried to build a coalition of Hispanics and liberal whites, Hahn won with the support of blacks and conservative whites—two groups that had been on opposite sides for years.

"Suddenly, blacks are saying, 'We've tried supporting blacks, and we don't get any results,' " Flake claims. "A dynamic shift has occurred," he emphasizes. "And when you look at the younger generation of African Americans, for whom we did those freedom bus rides and protests in the '60s—who are now able to go into institutions and come out with degrees—you'll see that they are no longer dependent on the old social and political models for success. There will be some races in which blacks will be effective as a bloc. In others, they can't be as effective because of the nature of relationships and coalitions. As a bloc, however, their ultimate survival will be built around building numerous coalitions with other groups."

The only coalition radical black activist Sonny Carson wants to build is a black and Latino movement to elect Fernando Ferrer the city's first Latino mayor. Carson praised Ferrer for helping transform the Bronx from a national symbol of urban decay to a thriving economic community.

"Believe it or not, since Sharpton has joined forces with Ferrer, a lot of the black vote is going that way," says Carson, leader of the Committee to Honor Black Heroes. "I'm backing Ferrer! Every black leader should back Ferrer!" he argues. Carson adds that he will call on black leaders who are not supporting Ferrer to renounce their support for the white candidates. "I think people like Floyd Flake, Calvin Butts, and David Dinkins should jump off the white bandwagons and join what is happening. I call on them to renounce their support of their white friends, not in a racist way, but to coalesce around Ferrer."

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