Just days before she files for the toughest race of her political career, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has been working to smooth over frayed relations with some African-American leaders in Arkansas over the prickly issue of federal court appointments.
But it appears those efforts have fallen flat in recent days.
Lincoln already faces an uphill battle to win a third term this fall, and if her support lags among black voters — who have historically been one of her most loyal constituencies — her re-election prospects could be further in peril.
But a more immediate concern for Lincoln could be the state’s May primary, since national progressive groups are hard at work trying to entice Lt. Gov. Bill Halter (D) to challenge the moderate Senator. Black voters account for a sizable chunk of the primary electorate in a state where the overall black population is 15.5 percent, and it appears Halter may be courting the support of key community leaders.
Lincoln allies argue that the Senator enjoys broad support in the black community. They point out that Lincoln has earned an A rating from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for her votes cast on civil rights issues in 2009 and is a strong advocate for the state’s many black farmers in her role as chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
A late January poll by a Democratic firm found that 51 percent of black voters approved of the job Lincoln is doing while 31 percent disapproved. That’s compared with the 22 percent of white voters who approved of the Senator’s job performance and 68 percent who did not.
The issue that has been roiling some black leaders in Arkansas for more than a year has been the lack of African-American attorneys under consideration for several ongoing judicial vacancies in Arkansas federal courts.
It was an issue that prompted the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP to write a sharply worded letter last spring criticizing Lincoln and fellow Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) for failing to nominate a black candidate for the post.
Tension over the matter eased a bit late last year when Pryor and Lincoln added a black candidate to a list of potential nominees submitted for a southern Arkansas federal judgeship vacancy after the death of a white candidate.
But the Arkansas NAACP and officers at the W. Harold Flowers Law Society — formerly known as the Arkansas Black Lawyers Association — say they have been informed that the administration is now considering that particular candidate for a U.S. attorney post rather than a judgeship.
The leaders fear that means the issue of a lack of black nominees is back to square one.
On Feb. 5, society president and Arkansas Circuit Court Judge Marion Humphrey wrote a letter to Lincoln and Pryor requesting a meeting to discuss his group’s ongoing frustration with the matter.
He pointed out Tuesday that the only current black federal judge in Arkansas was appointed when Republicans controlled the process.
“African Americans fared better under President George W. Bush than it appears that we are doing under President Barack Obama and two Senators of his party,” Humphrey wrote. “There is the belief among us that the two of you could make this issue known to the President if you choose to do so.”
Pryor held a meeting with a group of society officers at his office on Thursday and Lincoln met with the group on Friday, but Humphrey said the meetings did little to resolve their concerns.
Humphrey added that his group, which counts about a third of the black attorneys in Arkansas as members, may best be able to make their frustrations known by getting the message out in the black community ahead of Lincoln’s upcoming Senate race.
“Because we have been so loyal to the Democrats in these Senatorial races … I feel slighted and that seems to be the consensus. We don’t intend to be silent on this matter. I’m just not willing to be taken for granted in this election,” he said.
Lincoln’s campaign released a statement from the Senator on the issue Tuesday.
“Senator Pryor and I continue to work with the African-American community regarding possible vacancies within the Administration,” Lincoln said. “I am confident there are many qualified Arkansans and more opportunities to fill positions.”
But Dale Charles, president of the state NAACP, said he thinks this issue has the potential to dog Lincoln this cycle.
“Certainly I would think the voters would remember the fact that we were denied an opportunity to get any more African-American judges,” Charles said.
Interestingly, Halter has reached out to Humphrey since Friday to discuss the issue of black nominees for federal judgeships.
“The lieutenant governor called me on an evening recently, he talked with me about [the issue]. At this point I think people [in the black community] have a fairly good working relationship” with Halter.
Austin Porter Jr., a civil rights lawyer in Little Rock who attended last week’s meeting with Lincoln, said he left feeling “offended” by the lack of response to his concerns.
“In some ways [Lincoln and Pryor] have taken the black community for granted and that means we have to look at more viable candidates, and if Halter is that person we will give him a look,” Porter said.
Halter, who on Monday was being encouraged by MoveOn.org to throw his hat into the Senate race, did not respond to questions about Lincoln’s handling of the appointment issue.
Halter is also viewed as a possible Congressional candidate in the state’s open 2nd district, and he could also opt to run for re-election in November. The state’s filing deadline is March 8. Lincoln has announced she will file her re-election paperwork on March 1.
When asked about his 2010 political plans, a Halter spokesman said, “The lieutenant governor is considering the options available to best serve Arkansas. No option has been ruled out.”