- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The three Democratic presidential candidates who failed to appear at the NAACP’s presidential candidates forum yesterday became “persona non grata” in the black community, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Reps. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio cited prior obligations for their absences from the second day of the NAACP’s annual convention.

“If you expect us to believe that you could not find 90 minutes to come by, then you have no legitimacy over the next nine months to come into our communities expecting our support,” Mr. Mfume said.

“Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars,” he added.

All three candidates are rated highly in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual report cards, which are based on the lawmakers’ votes with regard to issues deemed important by the nonpartisan civil rights group.

But Mr. Mfume vows that the three absent candidates will receive little support from black voters, who historically have voted overwhelmingly Democratic, In 2000, Al Gore captured 90 percent of the black vote in his failed bid for the presidency versus 9 percent for Republican George W. Bush.

“Candidates who somehow believe that black people and black voters are always going to be there, you are in for a rude awakening,” he said, bringing the audience to its feet in the crowded hall at the Miami Convention Center.

Mr. Lieberman spent yesterday in New York attending “private meetings” by prior commitment, campaign spokesman Jano Cabrera said.

“It is unfortunate that Senator Lieberman cannot attend every invitation extended,” Mr. Cabrera said. He noted that the senator did appear at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition’s presidential forum last month and was planning to participate in the debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus in the fall.

A Gallup poll released last week showed Mr. Lieberman trailing only the Rev. Al Sharpton among black voters in the field of nine Democratic candidates.

Mr. Gephardt’s campaign did not return a phone call.

Mr. Mfume’s condemnation, while perhaps valid, is not a make-or-break issue for the missing candidates, said David A. Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Economic Studies.

“Mr. Mfume speaks for the NAACP, which has a lot of supporters,” Mr. Bositis said. “But not all African-Americans support the NAACP.”

Yesterday’s forum was attended by six Democratic presidential candidates: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and John Kerry of Massachusetts, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Mr. Sharpton.

Mr. Edwards was a late addition to the list. He previously said he would not be able to attend and was chastised on Saturday by Mr. Mfume and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.

As the candidates took their seats on the dais, moderator Julianne Malveaux, a liberal columnist from Washington, said, “Anybody who can’t be here today doesn’t need to be running for president of the United States.”

The candidates forum became a platform to demonize President Bush.

“We’re going to have a lot of fun at the president’s expense in the next 90 minutes or so,” Mr. Dean said at the outset.

The Democrats berated the administration’s policies on tax cuts and health care, and his absence at the candidates forum. They left alone the failure of their fellow Democrats to appear.

The event was ruled by Mr. Sharpton, whose sharp orator’s tongue and gospel-basso voice roused the audience, who gave him three standing ovations in his three-minute introductory speech.

“We have defeated Jim Crow, but we now have to deal with his son, James Crow Jr., esquire,” said the only black participant, garnering another round of loud acclaim.

Mr. Dean, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Graham noted their accomplishments in the name of the nation’s black population.

Mr. Edwards promised that some of the president’s court appointees “will take away your rights — it’s as simple as that.”

The forum drew a mixed-race crowd, while most of those greeting the candidates outside the hall were white.

For the candidates, the anticipated prize is the coveted black vote, which is either overrated or crucial, depending on the viewpoint.

Recent studies have found younger blacks straying from a steadfast fidelity to the Democratic Party.

“Very few view the Republican Party as an alternative,” Mr. Bositis said. “But there is a larger number now that have the choice of the Democratic Party or of staying at home.”

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