African American Voters Weigh Chances of Electing a Black President

African Americans will comprise upwards of 15% of Democratic primary voters in California come February. That could make them key players in deciding who wins the state ... and perhaps the nomination for president. As part of our continuing coverage of the February primary, KPCC's Frank Stoltze looks at one question weighing heavily for many Democratic African American voters in the Golden State: What are the chances of electing a black president?

Frank Stoltze: In 1972, New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the first African American to run for president.

Shirley Chisholm (in campaign speech): ... if we desire to make a contribution, to make this nation bring about the fulfillment of the American dream, so that it is meaningful to every segment in America ...

Stoltze: Chisholm sparked excitement among blacks, but most said she could never win, and refused to vote for her. More voted for the Reverend Jesse Jackson a dozen years later. Kerman Maddox worked as an advance man on Jackson's 1984 campaign.

Kerman Maddox: Probably the most exciting campaign I've ever participated in, in terms of a presidential election. But I don't think anybody in that campaign ever seriously thought we were gonna win the Democratic nomination.

Stoltze: Maddox is a longtime political consultant in Los Angeles who now supports Democratic Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Maddox: The question in my mind is not "Is white America ready?" – really "Is black America ready?" Are African Americans ready and willing to do what they need to do to get out there and support him in large numbers? Because if they do, he'll become the nominee.

[Sound of street scene]

Stoltze: Outside M-and-M Soul Food in South Los Angeles, African American voters wrestle with the question of Obama's electability as a black man.

Fifty-five-year-old Michael remembers voting for Shirley Chisholm in 1972. Michael declines to give his last name. He says he is more careful with his vote now, and may end up with Hillary Clinton.

Michael: Obviously, you want to vote for the person who has a real chance of winning, so if Obama is not gonna win, then there's no point in, you know – 'cause I like both of 'em.

George Ross: Well, I'm kinda torn between Hillary and Obama, trying to see which one of 'em's gonna be electable. If I think that Obama's electable, I'll go with him.

Stoltze: For George Ross, it'll come down to who has the momentum coming out of the early primaries. The 64-year-old retired postman considers another issue.

Ross: Being from the old school – little scared of female leadership. You know? It's kinda wishy washy, and, I mean, but ya know, Hillary's been around. She might be able to meet the task.

Stoltze: On the other hand, some wonder about Obama's experience level as a first term U.S. senator. Any sexism aside, Hillary Clinton is popular among blacks. There are no published polls gauging African American opinion here yet.

But in South Carolina, where blacks make up half the Democratic primary vote, she leads Obama by 11 percentage points. John Edwards and Bill Richardson lag farther behind. President Bill Clinton is a big reason for his wife's popularity. Betty Jean Page is a retired escrow officer.

Betty Jean Page: I would say, since Hillary has him at home with her, I would follow her lead 'cause I like Bill Clinton. I mean, I think he would give her good, sound advice. I'm not talking about him morally; I'm just talking about politically.

Stoltze: State Assemblywoman Karen Bass of South L.A. heads African Americans for Obama in California. She says blacks know Clinton better than Obama, despite all the press coverage.

Assemblywoman Karen Bass: So I think that the first challenge of the campaign is for the average person to get familiar with who Barack is: What is his story? Why is he qualified to be president?

Stoltze: This summer, 100 Black Men of America sponsored a fundraiser for Obama in Hancock Park. Attorney Brian Dunn likes Obama's early opposition to the Iraq War and commitment to urban economic development. He said his support is not about race.

Brian Dunn: When Tiger Woods won the Masters the first time, I was thinking 'this is really neat to see a black man win the Masters,' but really, like Tiger, Barack has kind of a transcendent quality. And I don't think people see Barack first as a black president.

Stoltze: Veteran political consultant Kerman Maddox is less sure of that, and wonders whether America would elect a black president. Maddox, though, wouldn't miss the opportunity.

Maddox: There's a tremendous source of pride I have as a black man to see another black man be as qualified as him and run as strong as him. I can't imagine not supporting Barack Obama, 'cause I don't know if I'll have this opportunity again in my lifetime.

Stoltze: An estimated 80% of African American voters in California are registered Democrats. They may play a big role in Obama's campaign in the Golden State, if the senator from Illinois does well, or at least stays within reach of the senator from New York, in the early primaries.

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