- The Washington Times - Friday, October 29, 2004

In a move that isn’t surprising, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry recently appointed the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a senior consultant to his campaign. Mr. Jackson will give advice on issues, message and strategy while also making appearances in key battleground states to influence voters. This may constitute the broad scope of his tasks, but it is clear that he has been drafted to mobilize a black voter base that Mr. Kerry has not been able to galvanize.

In a recent study by the Pew Center of Research, Mr. Kerry showed a 10 point drop in his support among black voters from 73 percent to 63 percent while President Bush experienced a steep increase from 6 percent to 12 percent. However, these recent numbers are simply the latest evidence of the lukewarm nature of black support for Mr. Kerry that has been chronicled since he received the nomination.

In a national opinion poll conducted by Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC) in July, only one in three black voters said they definitely believed that Mr. Kerry was the best candidate to replace Mr. Bush. In a related statistic, 32 percent of black voters stated they would have preferred someone other than Mr. Kerry to replace Mr. Bush. Polls conducted by CBS News/BET yielded similar results, foreshadowing the latest numbers by the Pew Center that have the Kerry campaign looking to Mr. Jackson for assistance.

While the idea of adding an influential figure in the final stages of a campaign is not unprecedented, in the case of Mr. Jackson’s addition to the campaign there are two main problems — the message and the messenger. The problem with the message does not refer to the campaign message that Mr. Jackson will be sharing with audiences in the states to which he is dispatched. The problem is the message that his addition to the campaign at this time sends to a black electorate that has expressed a growing feeling that the Democratic Party is taking them for granted.

The appointment of Mr. Jackson is part of a Democratic strategy in presidential elections that promotes the belief that all it takes to woo black voters is one person sent to certain areas (especially black churches) in the days leading up to the elections. In this election, this latest example of pulpit politics illustrates a clear inability of the Kerry campaign to present a cogent, cohesive, vision to improve the quality of life among black Americans. In 18 months of campaign visits, television appearances and ad campaigns, Mr. Kerry has failed to connect with and galvanize black voters.

The message sent is that sharing their vision for change with black voters is not something Mr. Kerry or John Edwards can do, and in desperation instead they deploy Mr. Jackson as a surrogate.

The other problem with this strategy lies with the messenger selected. This is no way an indictment of the importance of Mr. Jackson and his contribution to our nation over the last four decades. However, it is an indictment on a thought held by Kerry campaign strategists that one person can influence black Americans en masse. Such a thought doesn’t recognize the shift in the leadership paradigm among blacks that has occurred over the years. In the civil rights movement, while it was a coalition effort, there was a small group of leaders that held a massive influence on the black community. During his presidential runs in 1984 and 1988, Mr. Jackson held the position as being someone who single-handedly could influence black civic participation with one speech or appearance.

It is a new day in black leadership, with influence being a commodity that is diffused among a group of individuals as opposed to one person. In the BAMPAC poll, parents, music artists and clergy were listed as the most influential members of the black community. Similarly, one group cannot speak for all black Americans as evidenced by the strong political involvement of both the National Urban League and the NAACP.

Mr. Kerry’s appointment of Mr. Jackson as a senior adviser is a strategy that may or may not mobilize black voters. In the future, let’s hope that the responsibility of mobilizing black voters is one accepted by a candidate from the day he or she declares and not placed upon the shoulders of another in the waning days of an election when polls dictate something must happen.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC).

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