What Black Vote?

The City’s African American Electorate is No Longer Predictable

The activist accused some black leaders of engaging in a plot to confound African American voters. "White folks always gain when the vote in the black community is in a state of confusion," he scoffs. "What's important is that we form a black and Latino coalition that can take back Gracie Mansion. Because we finally have the chance to elect a Latino mayor, we need to back off whatever positions we've already publicly taken on Green, Vallone, and Hevesi."

Carson predicts that grassroots African Americans, such as those living in the Sumner Houses in Brooklyn, will ignore the white candidates and follow Al Sharpton's lead. Tenants in the projects, he notes, helped Sharpton nearly force a runoff in the 1997 mayoral primary. "When Sharpton ran for mayor he turned out the biggest black vote in the Bed-Stuy area. We who were supporting Sharpton went to every apartment, pushed a picture of him under every door, and told tenants to vote to elect a black mayor. When it came to election time the people in the Sumner Houses all came out. We still have those numbers, right now."

Sending a Latino to Gracie Mansion is "a worthy, laudable goal," Flake agrees. "It's going to happen because the paradigm has already shifted," the minister reiterates. "The only thing that mitigates against that goal at the moment is the fact that voter registration among Latinos is down."

A white politician, who applauds Flake for endorsing Hevesi, says history can wait; that black and Latino voters should think more about exacting pledges for economic development from white candidates—a tactic Flake has perfected. "It may look foolish on the surface," says the politician, who asked to remain anonymous, "but trust me, at the end of the day, when you compare what Reverend Flake has been able to get built out here in Queens to what the leadership in Harlem and Brooklyn is doing, he's accomplished more. You have to work with people some blacks don't want you to work with. It's not about loyalty; it's about business."

Such is the dilemma that would-be politicians like Wellington Sharpe are saddled with: whether to vote their conscience or cut sweetheart deals, like Flake, for the good of the people. Sharpe, a prominent Jamaican-born businessman, who is running for the City Council from Crown Heights, became the reputed front-runner after the sudden death on August 5 of former Abner Louima attorney Carl W. Thomas. People in Sharpe's camp are divided. (Thomas had backed Ferrer.) Some in the mostly West Indian American enclave are urging the 55-year-old day-care and home- and health-care specialist to back Hevesi while others are rooting for Ferrer.

"I'm being pulled in different directions," laments Sharpe, an immigrant success story who turned his Flatbush-based Nelrak Child Development Center into a thriving enterprise. Some of the people pulling on him are Jamaican immigrants who harbor anti-Latino sentiments. "Over the years, I have heard Jamaicans say that many Latinos think that they are white," Sharpe says. "This does not sit right with Jamaicans. It is a sore point with my own people."

So which way is Sharpe leaning? "My choice would be Freddie Ferrer for the long-term empowerment of our people. What would we say to Latino voters if we do not support Freddie? How could we go to them and say, 'We want you to support Carl McCall?' " It is unlikely that Sharpe, who has been endorsed by Al Sharpton and Thomas's widow, Elizabeth—and who is relying mostly on pro-Hevesi, Jamaican immigrants to sweep him into office—would backpedal.

Would African Americans have unified around one candidate if Rudy Giuliani—who is barred from seeking reelection by term limits—were running again?

Reverend Floyd Flake contends that younger African American voters are not interested in racial politics. "That has always been a part of our problem," he maintains. "We've always structured our politics around racism and gone after the bogeyman. The day for that is coming to an end simply because this younger class of African Americans are working in environments that were heretofore unaccessible to them. Because they are in these environments they are making different decisions. I've talked to African American Democrats who just as easily could have been Republican because their issues were the same—education and economics."

Some African Americans, who admire bogeyman gadflies like Mark Green, would like to follow David Dinkins's and Calvin Butts's lead. During Green's eight years as the city's public advocate, he has been one of Giuliani's most persistent critics. He has used the advocate office's government watchdog duties to blast Giuliani on issue after issue, ranging from the mayor's reluctance to run a more open government to police abuses in black and Latino neighborhoods. Observers say Green's activist approach to government has given him a head start in winning the support of minorities—particularly African Americans who feel they have been ignored by Giuliani.

"I mean, I'm no damn fool," says Congressman Rangel. "If blacks are following Green, I'm following blacks to Green. His name is out there for speaking out against police and poor education. We have someone who is obviously more popular than the rest, but I'm telling you now that that support is soft. I don't want to sound as though I'm being negative toward Green, but I've been talking with labor's rank and file. And they've told me what their leaders have done don't mean a damn thing: They ain't gonna be out there hustling because the executive committee by a vote of 50 to one has authorized that they go for Vallone or Hevesi or Green."

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