- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Three Democratic presidential candidates labeled “persona non grata” in the black community for failing to attend an NAACP forum apologized yesterday to tepid applause on the final day of the civil rights group’s 94th annual convention.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio delivered a six-minute speech on his candidacy and his support for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but was insufficiently contrite for some members.

The presiding parliamentarian refused to allow Mr. Kucinich to leave the stage, and said, “We have heard the explanation. Does the congressman need to say something else?”

Mr. Kucinich quickly took back the microphone with a smile and said, “I’m very sorry I wasn’t able to be here. Amazing grace, how sweet it is; once was lost, now I’m found.”

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut also apologized for failing to attend Monday’s forum to a half-empty hall at the Miami Beach Convention Center. An enthusiastic audience had greeted the party’s six other candidates three days earlier.

Mr. Lieberman said that “by not coming Monday, I was wrong. I regret it and I apologize for it. Particularly the NAACP. I respect what you do beyond words.”

Mr. Gephardt was similarly humble, apologizing almost as soon as he took the stage.

“I’m sorry I was not here when you had the joint appearance the other night. I had a long-standing conflict that I could not get out of, but I apologize to all of you for not being able to be here, and I thank you for letting me be here today.”

On Monday, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume told the three white candidates not to expect the support of black voters, about 90 percent of whom vote Democratic, because they did not attend the forum. He called them “persona non grata.”

The candidates were allowed to speak at the convention’s plenary session under the condition they not use the opportunity to make a campaign speech.

“We have suspended our rules to try to accommodate those who would not come before us after we invited them,” said Roslyn Brock, vice chairman of the NAACP’s board of directors.

She invited each member to offer “an apology and an explanation not to exceed five minutes.”

Each presentation was filled with hearty references to the causes the NAACP has touted all week: universal health care, affirmative action and pummeling the Bush administration.

During his appearance, Mr. Lieberman vowed to “continue the struggle,” a phrase used by virtually every black civil rights crusader.

“It is never too late to do the right thing,” said Mr. Lieberman, who ranks second in polls of black voters behind the Rev. Al Sharpton as the favorite Democratic contender. “And the right thing to do was to be here today. …”

The apologies were accepted by Mr. Mfume, who said that despite the apologies from the trio, “It is still up to the voters. There may have been frayed feelings … but we are glad they had a change of heart and were glad they chose not to ignore this voting bloc.”

He added that “some will see them coming here today as an effort to ameliorate what has been done, and others will see it as a sincere apology.”

Invitations for the candidate forum were sent in late April or early May, Mr. Mfume said.

“The presidential candidate forum to be held this afternoon has been on your calendar for months,” Mr. Mfume said during an address to convention delegates Monday. “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.”

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

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

All nine candidates appeared during a forum last month in Chicago for the annual conference of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Mr. Jackson, who spoke yesterday after the three chastised candidates, later noted their appearance in Chicago and brushed off Mr. Mfume’s criticism of the candidates.

“He made his point, and they have come and they have gone,” Mr. Jackson said. “They’re all good men. They came to our conference. There’s no lasting residual from Monday here.”

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