- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Al Gore's presidential campaign manager yesterday said Democrats cannot take black voters for granted in 2004 and must stop attacking civil rights activist Al Sharpton because Republicans are making "inroads" into one of the party's most loyal voting blocs.
Donna Brazile, a top minority voter outreach adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said Democrats must step up their efforts to court black voters, more of whom are registering as independents and Republicans.
"The GOP is making inroads in the black vote. It's trending away. Groups of [minority] voters are hearing the Republican message," Miss Brazile said in an interview with The Washington Times.
Miss Brazile's comments came in response to a report in The Times on Monday that detailed Democrats' concerns that Mr. Sharpton's presidential bid would divide their party.
"He's an unknown quantity; that scares people. What they read about him causes people to cringe because they don't know him," said Miss Brazile, the first black woman to manage a presidential campaign. She is regarded as one of the Democrats' leading strategists.
Miss Brazile said Mr. Sharpton's Democratic critics "need to take a deep breath and exhale." She compared Mr. Sharpton's candidacy to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential runs.
"It helped expand our party's base and grow the electorate. He put more African-Americans and Hispanics on the voter roll than any other person outside of Martin Luther King. He campaigned all over the country for our party," she said.
As evidence of her assertion that the Democrats were beginning to lose a small piece of the black vote, Miss Brazile pointed to polling by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a group focusing on issues of interest to black Americans.
A survey by the Joint Center last fall concluded, among other things, that "there has been a noteworthy change in black partisan identification (away from the Democrats)" since the 2000 election.
"In 2002, 63 percent of African-Americans were self-identified Democrats (down from 74 percent in 2000), 24 percent were self-identified Independents (up from 20 percent in 2000), and 10 percent were self-identified Republicans (up from 4 percent in 2000)," the Joint Center report said.
Republicans are aware of the importance of garnering the black vote and are playing for it, she said, noting efforts in key elections last year in Maryland, Florida and elsewhere.
"My message to the Democrats is not to take blacks for granted," she said, especially as President Bush reaches out to black voters with initiatives in his budget, Cabinet appointments, economic policies and other political appeals.
She specifically noted that Mr. Bush this year was seeking a significant increase in funding for historically black colleges and universities. He also proposed a $15 billion initiative to combat AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean nations, a faith-based proposal to provide social services for the poor and a mentoring program for children of prisoners.
Miss Brazile also expressed dismay at attacks on Mr. Sharpton by two liberal Democratic-leaning journals, the New Republic and the American Prospect. The New Republic criticized Mr. Sharpton for what it called his "racialist political theater" and quoted unnamed Democrats who said Mr. Sharpton's campaign would be "a nightmare" for their party.
Miss Brazile said her message was "stop beating him up."
"Debate him, don't disown him," she said.
Another black politician, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, also has indicated her plans to enter the presidential primary contests. Speculation rose that Democrats had urged her to run in an attempt to split the black vote with Mr. Sharpton and thus limit his appeal in the party.
Miss Brazile said she had urged the former senator to run but denied that there was any plot against Mr. Sharpton.
"I am urging a lot of people to run and get involved. It's good for our party. Did anyone among the Republicans say Pat Robertson shouldn't run or Gary Bauer or the other conservatives?"
She said Mr. Sharpton is encouraging even "favorite sons and daughters" from different states to run in their primaries.
Miss Brazile said she has advised Democrats in the party, "Don't ignore him, don't slight him, don't treat him like a second-class candidate, because it will fuel his fire, and his spirit will soar even larger."
One of Democrats' biggest complaints about Mr. Sharpton is his habit of turning against the party's nominees, as he did in the 2001 New York City mayoralty race.
"That's going to be an issue on the campaign trail for him. People will question whether he will at the end of the day support the eventual nominee if he fails to win the nomination," Miss Brazile said.
Thus far, "this is the exploratory phase, with all of the niceties between the candidates. Trust me, by midsummer, you are going to see the gloves come off, and you'll see the candidates highlighting their differences," she said.
She said Mr. Sharpton "could still capture a large bloc of primary voters because they are looking for someone who can go outside the box."

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