Showtime at the Apollo


A little more than a week ago, after his regular Sunday service at the Allen A.M.E. church in Queens, Reverend Floyd Flake warmly welcomed Bill Bradley. He said the candidate would make a fine president, but fell deliberately short of giving his endorsement. The explanation: he and Reverend Al Sharpton would wait until they had heard the candidates debate before settling on a golden child.

But this past Sunday, a full week before the February 21 debate at the Apollo Theatre, when introducing Al Gore, Flake ate his words. “I don’t do endorsements from across the pulpit.” But he did.

Bradley probably wasn’t surprised. Because, although it was his wooing of the black community, and not Gore’s, that had been mainstream media’s pet project in recent weeks—see Bradley cuddle Sharpton; see Bradley condemn Confederate flag; see Bradley sink Michael Jordan’s first political endorsement—according to political players and those in the black mainstream, Brother Bradley was ne’er to be found.

At the New York Amsterdam News, which has a weekly black readership of 30,000, publisher and editor in chief Elinor Tatum says that, while she has held four meetings with Gore, two on the record and two off, the Bradley operation has been less than accommodating. They did make several requests for coverage but then did not follow through. Eventually, they invited Tatum’s reporter to an open press event where he could shout out a question or two. The Am News did not attend. “We’re still going to cover him, but I really do hope that he decides we’re important enough to speak to him,” says Tatum.

Political consultant Jim Spencer thinks much of Bradley’s recent racial-friendly press is a put-on. “He’s doing it to appeal to the white liberal community,” says Spencer, director of Winning Directions, a Democratic political consulting firm. “It’s a strategy thing.”

Spencer attributes the Gore lockup of votes in the black community in part to “party calls” made during the eight-year Clinton administration. “Using teleconferencing calls, they’d get 500 important pastors, preachers, [and] community leaders all together in the same room. They’d ask them for their input on policy issues.”

These alliances and conferences have been out of the spotlight, below ground, and have not been touted to the mainstream press. “Gore doesn’t need to make the splashy campaign that Bradley does.” Because, according to Spencer, the ties are already there. “They have direct access to the White House. The black community is not going to give that up.”

Bradley’s recently appointed national deputy campaign manager Jacques DeGraff has spoken on WLIB’s afternoon show Politics Live with host Mark Riley several times.”I’ve been on ‘LIB and NPR and other stations that the black community listens to,” DeGraff says. But as far as purchased advertising goes, the station says they haven’t heard from Bradley.

Buying airtime in the black community—on average $175 for a 60-second spot—has proven useful to past politicos. In 1998, in the race for Senate, Chuck Schumer spent $15,000. Eliot Spitzer, while running for state attorney general, spent $6000; Peter Vallone spent $1400 in his bid for governor.

“We certainly do command the black market,” says Janie Washington, the station’s general manager. “This little AM station that supposedly has no listeners can turn out 100,000 people when there is a cause in the minority community.” But with the primary just three weeks away, no ads have hit the airwaves. “We’re waiting with bated breath,” says Riley.

But, from the beginning, the Bradley campaign has been touted as a grassroots operation. It was not about media hype, not about stabs and jabs, but about getting the word out through community efforts. And while many notable black New Yorkers are standing behind Gore, among them Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields and former mayor David Dinkins, Bradley does have his own troop of supporters.

He has Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker and Brooklyn assemblymembers Al Vann and Darryl Towns. Vann brings with him his 180-member organization—the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association. Towns spearheads the New Democratic Club with close to 200 members. Yet as of late last week, neither Vann nor Towns had received any specific marching orders or “street money,” the cash commonly doled out to support door-to-door leafleting.

“They minimize it,” says Vann. “All major campaigns do. All the money goes into the media and a pittance goes into field operations.”

But Spencer and many of his colleagues believe Bradley is not so much storing his money for media as he is for a white, liberal, L.L. Bean audience. Pointing to the recent release of the Michael Jordan commercial, Spencer cites common campaign demographics. “Here’s the profile of the African American voter: She’s a woman and she’s between the ages of 42 and 60. It’s the women who control the vote in the community.” If Bradley were truly targeting the black vote, he would not have the b-ball champ on air. “It’ll be their ministers telling them who to vote for, not Michael Jordan.”

In less than a week, the two wooers will battle it out onstage. They can rest assured, we’ll all be watching.