Maybe they should have considered Howard Dean’s appeal last week to sons of the South as a blueprint for success. A day before the barnstorming presidential contender was all but forced to apologize for saying he wanted the votes of guys driving trucks with Confederate flags, Democrats in Kentucky and Mississippi watched the GOP claim the governors’ mansions. The Democratic Party’s need to reconnect with Southern white men isn’t lost on some of New York City’s African American leaders, who argue it should be a natural fit.
“Global-trade schemes are taking their jobs too,” says Brooklyn congressman Major Owens. “We get distracted by this Confederate flag nonsense, but I think African Americans in the South would welcome an alliance.”
No matter. By Monday, polls were showing Dean had lost three points in the Iowa caucuses, while Richard Gephardt vaulted ahead by picking up six. Whether that can be reversed or whether it stems from the flag debacle at all isn’t clear. Nor is it clear how much, if any, damage Dean has done to his rapport with black voters.
In the same week when he appeared on the verge of a collapse worthy of Gary Hart, Dean locked up the endorsements of two major unions, the SEIU and AFSCME. Dean’s securing of the SEIU nod was particularly telling because of the union’s racially diverse membership—35 percent of which is black or Latino. Before a final decision on Dean, SEIU’s executive board met with the front-runner and put the flag controversy on the table. “He really understands the plight of the community,” says African American Tyrone Freeman, president of SEIU 434B (a 112,000-member local in California) and a member of the board.
Recalling his time as a labor organizer in Georgia, Freeman suggests Dean’s analysis of race and class in the South, if not his presentation, was right. Freeman says the racism he encountered was based on a misunderstanding of the economic issues. “Throughout this presidential primary,” he says, “the issue of race and economic equality will be on the platform because [Dean] brought it out.”
Prior to his bumbling remark, Dean had actually been picking up steam in his effort to convert the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency. Only a week earlier, Dean had spent his Sunday being shuttled to two black churches by Michigan congressman John Conyers. A few days later, Jesse Jackson Jr. unofficially endorsed Dean. There was talk of other Congressional Black Caucus members jumping on board, in addition to an ongoing pursuit of the big fish—Jesse Jackson Sr.
Incidentally, Dean has seemed to be helping to drive a wedge between Al Sharpton and the Jackson camp, and perhaps between Sharpton and black voters. After Jackson’s endorsement, Sharpton called Dean “anti-black.” In Monday’s Washington Post, the reverend insinuated that Jackson Jr. was an Uncle Tom. “I’m ready to put out ads telling all Uncle Toms, at least send me part of the money you get from selling out because if I wasn’t in the race they wouldn’t be offering you nothing.”
Dean’s epic stumble on race was the biggest of his several gaffes so far. His opponents made him pay. “The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need,” South Carolina senator John Edwards told Dean, offering the soundbite of the November 4 debate.
Under the withering attack, Dean declined to apologize, but thought better of it the next day. His apology appears to have repaired the damage done with black leaders, at least those who aren’t named Al Sharpton. To forgive was one thing, Sharpton implied, but to forget was quite another.
Other African American heavies were somewhat more generous. “Governor Dean did the right thing today by expressing regret over his recent comments concerning the Confederate flag. I have always believed that my party must appeal to everyone, and I am confident that my party’s eventual nominee will create a coalition that is inclusive and welcomes all Americans,” said Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democratic congressman and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, on his website.
Even if Dean hasn’t won over black voters, neither has he been outpaced by the competition. Owens, one of the first African Americans of note to endorse Dean, points out that none of the other eight candidates have made particularly great inroads in the black community. “He just stirred up a discussion,” says Owens. “I don’t think he did any long-term damage.”