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Courting the Black Vote
By Laura McCallum
August 16, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Campaign 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Both Republicans and Democrats are aggressively courting African American voters this year, from the national conventions to outreach efforts in Minnesota's central cities. The Minnesota Republican Party formed a black Republican coalition this year, and DFLers are working hard to register African American voters. But it's clear from several recent events that bridging the gap between politicians and urban voters is no easy task.

BACK IN MAY, six white DFL Senate candidates appeared before a largely-black crowd at Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis. The men wanted to discuss health care, affordable housing, education and living wages, but the audience wanted to talk about slavery reparations. None of the candidates had read The Debt, a recent book on the subject, and none was willing to support government payments to African Americans for past slavery and discrimination. Two months later, DFL Senate candidates Mike Ciresi, Mark Dayton and Rebecca Yanisch appeared at another Lucille's Kitchen debate broadcast on KMOJ Radio. This time, all three had read The Debt.

But the debate turned serious on the key question of the book. Both Ciresi and Dayton said they would oppose monetary payments to descendants of slavery, although the two said they want to use the nation's budget surplus for education, health care and living wages to help African Americans move up the economic ladder.

Bill English of the African American Leadership Summit questioned the opposition to reparations. "At the bottom of not paying is racism," he said. "That's at the bottom of everything, and that's white superiority. How will you as a senator get at that question in terms of racism in America, which is at the bottom of everything in terms of the disparity?"

Both Ciresi and Dayton took offense to the word racism in English's question; Ciresi said labeling a disagreement over reparations as racism doesn't help the debate.

"I know there's racism in this society," Ciresi said. "I know there's racism in Minnesota. I've been around the state. But to start out the conversation by saying because I may disagree, that that is racism, then you and I can agree to disagree on that."

English shot back that he didn't call anyone racist, he simply said the result of not paying reparations is racism. Dayton said the exchange points out how difficult it is for a white politician to discuss sensitive racial issues with a non-white audience.

Two days after the Lucille's Kitchen debate, a group of white Republican politicians found itself struggling to understand some of the concerns raised by African American leaders in St. Paul. The meeting was organized by the Black Republican Coalition, which was launched this year to try to bridge the gap between the Republican Party and the Twin Cities' African American community.

But the extent of that divide was clear, when Urban Coalition President Yusef Mgeni welcomed the group of suburban and rural legislators to the Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul. "I know that the only thing a lot of you ever learned about this community was how to stay out of it," he said.

The meeting's moderator, Rev. Devin Miller, asked the question on the minds of the African American leaders in the room: Why was the Republican Party reaching out now? House Republican leaders say the effort is more than just election-year politics. Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan says Republicans realize they won't win any metro legislative seats this year.

"The Republican Party has a lot of work to do in terms of reaching out to communities of color and urban communities," Pawlenty says. "We are in a deficit position for a whole bunch of reasons. But it starts with a dialogue and understanding, some trust. You don't just get respect and support, you have to earn it. And this ain't about this November's election, it's probably not even about the next election after that or the next one after that, frankly."

Pawlenty says it's unhealthy for one party to hold all of the legislative seats in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He says black voters should think about whether the DFL domination has improved the inner cities.

But the Republican themes of lower taxes and less government were not the issues the African American leaders wanted to talk about. Mgeni and other leaders cited some of the problems in the black community - low rates of home ownership, high rates of incarceration, and the negative effects of gentrification, which they say has boosted housing costs in traditionally black neighborhoods, forcing many African Americans to move.

Kristi Pierce, who directs a program for juveniles at the New Beginnings Center, says she wants the same state-of-the-art schools and good jobs in St. Paul that are available in the suburbs.

"This country was built on the backs and strength of black people and people of color, and now it's being built by stepping on black people and people of color," she said. "It's frustrating and it's sad and it hurts to know that a man Al's color can't walk into a bank and get a loan to make it better for his family. He can't get a car so that he can go out and get the jobs that you have made available for people like us."

Several leaders said the problem is that when white legislators set policy that affects black Minnesotans, blacks aren't at the table. Minnesota only has one African American legislator - DFLer Greg Gray of Minneapolis - but DFLer Neva Walker of Minneapolis is hoping to become Minnesota's first African American female legislator if elected this year.

Walker says it doesn't surprise her that many white politicians aren't well-versed in some of the key issues facing African Americans.

"I'm closer to the concerns in the black community," Walker says.

Walker says she thinks the DFL has generally taken the black vote for granted, and she says the Black Republican Coalition may generate more support than it might appear at first blush. She says many African Americans are conservative, and agree with the GOP drive to cut taxes.

Although most Democrats scoffed at the formation of the Black Republican Coalition, DFL leaders aren't taking it lightly, and are making a major push to register minority voters. Political observers say the reason both parties are now focusing heavily on the black vote is that African American voters could have a major impact on this year's election.

"Conventional wisdom says that in this economy, there's no group that's probably more motivated to do something again than the black community," says Blois Olson, co-publisher of the political web site "Here in Minnesota, the tragic death of the little boy in north Minneapolis, Kevin Brewer, says that there's still things that need to be done, and politicians and political parties can do their best to call attention to those things."

Olson says while Republicans won't gain any metro legislative seats this year, they may get black conservatives to the polls, which could help their candidates at the top of the ticket. Minnesota's Independence Party has no organized outreach effort to woo African-American voters, but the party is running 12 legislative candidates in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and hopes to pick up a metro seat or two.