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Democratic Party Must Repair Ties With Black Voters

On the heels of a surprising Supreme Court victory for affirmative action, Senate Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus will convene a national summit today to discuss issues of importance to African-Americans and their allies on Capitol Hill — including jobs, education, civil rights, health care, the economy and homeland security.

The agenda is full of issues that have traditionally helped galvanize African-Americans’ near monolithic support for the Democratic Party. Much will be said about the devastating effects of the Bush tax cuts on African-American families and about the GOP embrace of right-wing ideologues on the courts. For summit participants, who have been chosen by Senate Democratic leaders and the CBC, it is important to hear from Congressional allies how they plan to promote a progressive agenda while confronting a hostile Republican majority.

Yet the clatter of criticism toward President Bush and the Republican-led Congress will not be so loud as to drown out voices of dissatisfaction from within. African-Americans — while rightly angry with the Bush administration and the GOP — are also imparting a message to the Democratic Party: “We are sick and tired of only being remembered two weeks before an election.”

Such complaints, which are as old as the 40-year alliance between African-Americans and the Democratic Party itself, have new resonance. During the 2000 presidential campaign, I heard daily complaints from ordinary African-American party supporters — from volunteers who were walking in off the streets of Nashville complaining that they couldn’t get yard signs to African-American elected officials in Southern states who had difficulty getting literature to pass out in church.

In the 2004 general election, as in 2000, the party may adopt a similar strategy in battleground states and ignore 60 percent of African-American voters who reside in noncontested states.

The focus of the party’s policy agenda hasn’t always helped matters either. If the truth be told, the party’s insistence on moving to the “center” and “mainstreaming” its core messages has stirred a sense of abandonment in the souls of many black voters, as those terms are perceived code words for “appeal to independents and moderates — we already have the black vote.” Although former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore — both centrists — were able to turn out a record number of African-American voters, they did so by trumpeting a message of inclusion and opportunity, not one of benign neglect.

It’s time for the Democratic Party to get back in touch with its largest bloc of registered minority voters, listen to their complaints, repair the relationship and rebuild traditional ties with the African-American community and elected leaders across the country.

To do so, party leaders must move beyond summits inside the Beltway and venture out to community forums and town meetings taking place across America. Dialogue — thoughtful, upfront and forthright communication — is the place to start. Party officials must come to these sessions with an open mind on how to restore the relationship and renew the alliance before the last three weeks of campaign 2004.

This fall, Democrats must put into place the key leaders who will play a decisive role in determining the party’s fate in 2004. African-Americans must help develop and devise an aggressive strategy to register new voters and re-engage those who are often ignored and disgruntled. The days of drive-by campaigning — last-minute phone calls, desperate pleas for help — are over. If Democrats are to reach African-Americans, they must begin now.

Democratic lawmakers must also redouble their efforts to reach out by advertising early in minority newspapers and publications. Democrats must utilize both traditional and novel ways to reach black voters and to discuss what’s at stake in the next presidential election. Black disc jockeys often complain when politicians call at the last minute desperate to get their message out before Election Day. I suggest my friends in the party place calls this week and start talking up the next campaign.

Lastly, Democratic leaders must take their message out of Washington and on the road. Those in Washington who have championed the needs of minorities, such as Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Tom Daschle (S.D.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Jon Corzine (N.J.), should take initial responsibility, along with CBC members, to lead a national dialogue on the future of the Democratic Party.

At its best, the relationship between African-Americans and the Democratic Party is a symbiotic one. Democrats can count on the African-American community for electoral support, and African-Americans can count on the party to involve us and to stand up for our interests in the public policy arena. When that relationship is fractured, neither side benefits and neither side wins at the ballot box.

Donna Brazile, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, was the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000.

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