- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2000

LOS ANGELES Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman yesterday sought to quell black Democrats' dissension about his candidacy by stressing his support of affirmative action and public schools.
As Vice President Al Gore arrives in California today to claim the party's presidential nomination, the Democratic ticket is moving quickly to prevent a rift in its base.
"There is so much more that unites us than divides us," Mr. Lieberman told the Democratic National Committee's black caucus at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel.
Mr. Lieberman sought to answer blacks' misgivings about his support of school vouchers and Proposition 209, a California initiative that banned state-funded affirmative-action programs.
"I have supported affirmative action. I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action," said the Connecticut Democrat.
His statement yesterday, however, differs from his past stance. He said Sunday that when asked about Proposition 209 after he became chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1996, he responded, "That sounds like a statement of basic American principles."
And in a Senate floor speech the year before, Mr. Lieberman said, "Affirmative action is dividing us in ways its creators could never have intended because most Americans who do support equal opportunity and are not biased don't think it is fair to discriminate."
Yesterday, he said the reporter who asked the Proposition 209 question had taken his answer out of context.
His new position satisfied Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, who had threatened to "sit out" the election over Mr. Lieberman's stances.
"I'm satisfied. I think that he told the truth, and I think that he certainly clarified his position on affirmative action," said Mrs. Waters.
Mrs. Waters, one of the staunchest defenders of President Clinton during his House impeachment, also accepted Mr. Lieberman's explanation on his former support of school vouchers.
The senator introduced a bill in 1995 to create six federally funded voucher projects to show they would work, saying "There are too many ways in which the public school system has failed to deliver adequately for our kids." He voted for the proposal, as did former Sen. Bill Bradley.
Yesterday, he said he thought a pilot program would be worth trying until public education could be fixed. But he added he had never retreated from basic support of public education.
"He told the truth that he had experimented with vouchers. He made it clear that he's not going to do that in the future and he's going to meet with us on criminal justice issues," said Mrs. Waters.
But the California Democrat had been far more critical of Mr. Lieberman before his speech to the black caucus, signifying potentially critical misgivings among blacks.
"I would seriously sit out an election if in fact the issues that I have worked on all my life are undermined," by a running mate who is "diametrically opposed" to her stances, Mrs. Waters said Monday.
"The vice president has said he's absolutely against vouchers. Mr. Lieberman is saying he's for vouchers. I think it's very confusing to the public when you have two of your top candidates running for president and vice president differing on the issue. So I think it needs clarification."
Pat Harrison, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Mrs. Waters' turnabout an act to persuade other blacks that serious concerns have been raised and answered.
"They needed someone to bridge how he is perceived in the black community," she said. "He's got to reassure their left, their base. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. I don't think it's going to fool anybody."
Despite Mrs. Waters' public criticism, Mr. Lieberman led caucus members in singing "Happy Birthday" to the congresswoman, who turned 62 yesterday.
Democrats have responded quickly to criticism from blacks because the voting bloc was key to President Clinton's victories. In 1996, 22.5 million blacks were registered to vote, 11.4 million went to the polls and 84 percent of them voted for Mr. Clinton, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The Clinton-Gore administration, hoping to ward off a critical rift with black voters, went into full damage-control mode yesterday.
Early in the day, Mr. Lieberman and three top black officials Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District and Clinton Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman met with Bill Lynch, a black vice chairman of the Democratic Party, at Mr. Lieberman's hotel.
"He just conveyed his position, which satisfied me," said Mr. Lynch, a political consultant and a New York delegate to the Democratic Convention. "I wasn't looking for assurances. I just wanted clarity" about Mr. Lieberman's stances on affirmative action and vouchers, he said.
Mr. Lieberman also was mindful of politics during a walk-through at the Staples Center. Mr. Lieberman reached the podium, spread his arms wide and said "It's for real."
He then lingered, standing next to Mrs. Norton and Mrs. Brazile, as photographers snapped pictures the Democrats hope will send an inclusive message.
At the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater told members of the DNC's black caucus that Mr. Lieberman's life is "a strong and committed and courageous journey" for civil rights.
Mrs. Norton introduced Mr. Lieberman as a friend and urged blacks not to focus on their disagreements with the senator.
"Bill Clinton taught us it's no tent, it's an umbrella," Mrs. Norton said. "If you're with me most of the time, you're the man."
In speaking to the black caucus, Mr. Lieberman stood before a banner that read: "African Americans for Gore and Lieberman," and told how he had marched with Martin Luther King "for jobs and freedom" in 1963.
Mr. Lieberman said he traveled to Mississippi that fall to register voters.
"I don't come to boast about it, because I know the work is not finished," Mr. Lieberman said.
Reaction varied from applause and shouts of affirmation to skepticism. Some caucus members gave Mr. Lieberman a standing ovation. Others sat quietly and did not clap.
Many black delegates and lawmakers arrayed in Los Angeles say that they have some qualms about Mr. Lieberman but they support the Democratic ticket.
"Is Lieberman my first choice? No," Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO, said yesterday during a reception Mrs. Norton hosted at the Biltmore Hotel.
"But the bottom line is that we have to keep our eye on the real issue, and the real issue is Bush and Cheney and the potential consequences of a Republican victory upon minorities and working men and women."
Mr. Lieberman's place on the ticket is "a concern somewhat," Bobbie Powell, a black delegate from Louisville, Ky., said on the convention floor at the Staples Center.
"He may have looked at affirmative action as a misguided kid who needed direction. My choice would have been Evan Bayh," but "when it's all said and done we're going to come together," she said.
Wanda Alston, a black delegate from the District, also expressed misgivings, but said blacks will rally around Mr. Lieberman.
"We are concerned in the Afri-can-American community, but not to the point where we would distrust him," she said at the Staples Center.
"We believe Lieberman deserves the chance." But she added: "We will not let go of affirmative action any more than he will let go of the state of Israel."
Mr. Lynch, the vice chairman of the Democratic Party, said at the Westin Bonaventure: "There are some concerns" and he is not "totally satisfied" but he supports Mr. Lieberman.
"It's long past time that an occasional difference within the party can divide Democrat from Democrat," Mrs. Norton said during the reception at the Biltmore.
Mrs. Norton said blacks will "absolutely" stand behind the ticket.
"If in fact there is a rift in views, there could be a problem," District Mayor Anthony A. Williams said at the reception.

Adrienne Washington contributed to this report.

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