Rev. Jesse Jackson wants to keep alive the campaign to make every vote count. He led a demonstration in Tallahassee as Al Gore was writing his concession speech. “Florida is the scene of the crime,” he called out. “It is what Birmingham and Selma were 30 years ago.”
I would have no problem with Mr. Jackson’s latest campaign except for one thing. It’s completely disingenuous.
Are the practices of using outdated voting machines in black districts and purging or mis-assembling the voter rolls that he and the NAACP allege rampant? I don’t doubt it. Anyone who works in any black precinct on any election day knows that these types of problems exist. Are the boards of elections, secretaries of state and the judiciary highly partisan? You bet. What’s more, the election boards in counties where most of the voting irregularities in Florida affecting African-Americans took place are controlled by Democrats. Does this require a massive election reform effort? It does. Was Mr. Jackson an advocate for election reform before Al Gore’s presidential bid hung in the balance? No. Did anyone ask him to be one? Yes. I did. He turned me down.
More than 15 years ago, I began a campaign for radical election reform. The state of American democracy was troubled. Half the country wasn’t voting. Dissatisfaction with government and with the two parties was rising. So was partisan control over the election process. From laws governing ballot access, to campaign-finance regulations, to the exclusionary conduct of candidate debates, to the disrepair of the voting machines, to the winner-take-all system itself, ordinary Americans were shut out of the process together with independent and insurgents who were trying to reform the process. Black communities were disproportionately hurt by these structural problems.
When I first ran for the presidency as an independent in 1988, the name of my campaign committee was Lenora B. Fulani’s Committee for Fair Elections. My agenda was wholly constructed around electoral reform. Opening up the ballot. Opening up the airwaves. Opening up the debates. Opening up the procedures for voting. Term-limiting elected officials.
I worked with members of Congress to create federal legislation to ease ballot access restrictions which favor Democratic and Republican candidates and discriminate against independents. Later I helped draft a bill to link receipt of public funding for presidential candidates to participation in debates that include qualified independents. Next I fought the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) over its abuse of power in a five-year investigation of my 1992 presidential campaign, a politically motivated investigation that had considerable racial overtones, from which the FEC was finally forced to retreat. The Committee for a Unified Independent Party, which I chair, developed a Same Day Voter Registration bill an approach proven to increase participation and prevent voters from being illegally turned away at the polls.
Throughout the evolution of these and other initiatives, I have appealed to Mr. Jackson for support. My contention was and remains that these issues are the new civil rights agenda for the new millennium. But Mr. Jackson has not responded. He would not stand with me on these issues. Most recently, I supported the campaign to call a constitutional convention in New York, specifically for the purpose of giving voters the right to statewide initiative and referendum. Mr. Jackson and all the liberal Democrats opposed it. And one can’t help but conclude that because these reforms open up the process for all, and not just for the Democratic Party, that he is loathe to support them.
Some black leaders have. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan was the original sponsor of my ballot access reform bill. Rep. Charles Rangel challenged the FEC’s harassment of me. Even Mr. Jackson’s son, Rep. Jesse Jackson, drafted a resolution earlier this year repudiating the Commission on Presidential Debates’ exclusionary criteria.
Mr. Jackson’s agenda is all too clear. He is for fairness, when it benefits a white hotshot from Tennessee. Where was he when Cynthia Jenkins, Pedro Espada, Ernie Foster, Felix Rosado, Lorraine Stevenson, Rafael Mendez all grassroots black and Hispanic candidates were abused by local election officials? He was nowhere to be found.
His references to Birmingham and Selma are especially repugnant to me. The civil rights and voting rights principles for which Martin Luther King Jr. fought (and died) were the foundation of a movement that was neither Democrat nor Republican. His movement was an independent one, based on conscience and vision, not partisan advantage. Did the Democratic Party attach itself to that movement, legislate its agenda and capture its base? Unquestionably. Does that make the Democratic Party the arbiter of, and voice for, fairness for the American people black or white? Not in my book.
Mr. Jackson has criticized the U.S. Supreme Court ruling which closed down Al Gore’s quest for the presidency, likening it to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision which returned Scott to his slaveowner and extended slavery to the territories. Mr. Jackson is entitled to his opinion on this decision and he obviously has a strong one. But in my mind, it is Mr. Jackson’s own actions which invoke the sorry spirit of the Dred Scott case. For he persists in returning black America to its contemporary slaveowners partisanship in general and the Democrats in particular instead of standing up for our right and our need to be free. Neither Democrats nor Republicans will reform a system constructed for their advantage. Only independents will. If the black community wants to march for fairness, it will have to march with us.
Lenora B. Fulani has twice run for president as an independent. She currently chairs the Committee for a Unified Independent Party.