- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

A young professional black man who shall remain nameless last week tried to bait and berate me publicly after he overheard me identify my employer, whom he called “that conservative newspaper.”

“Oh, they sent out their token black reporter to this black event,” he said, raising his voice and trying to attract the audience that was filing out of the U.S. Senate forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Urban League’s Thursday Network.

“You obviously haven’t read my column,” I said.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow details.

Suffice it to say that, as I was leaving the meeting hall in Old Town Alexandria, this passionate young man ran after me and apologized just as profusely as he protested my presence.

Apparently, someone gave him a little more information about me.

Yes, I’m an employee of The Washington Times — and not the only black one, either. But anyone who has ever read a word I’ve written would hardly accuse me of being a card-carrying conservative.

This young Democrat (I assume) said he lashed out at me to express his anger and frustration with “white people” in general and with Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, specifically.

His key gripe focused on what he viewed as a racially motivated practice of dispatching black surrogates, or “tokens,” to campaign events where the majority of the audience is black.

Former Navy Secretary James H. Webb Jr., Mr. Allen’s Democratic challenger for the Senate, appeared in the flesh at the forum for more than an hour.

“I’ll bet that if Mr. Allen’s campaign had sent a white representative, you would be the first person to complain,” I told the young man.

I didn’t bother to mention the subliminal suggestion he made by insinuating that black surrogates or representatives are less capable or valuable to their employer, as well as the audience.

Clearly this exchange is illustrative of the erosion of respect and decorum in public discourse, as witnessed by the nasty tenor of these testy midterm campaigns.

But there is a much deeper lesson here, for this young man and I walked away forced to contemplate our assumptions.

All too often we settle for easy stereotypes and labels.

If these midterm elections have shown us nothing else, they have demonstrated that the traditional polarizing terms no longer apply.

This week’s cover of Newsweek, which features Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. as “Not Your Daddy’s Democrat,” says it all.

How do you tell a liberal from a conservative from an independent when candidates no longer walk lockstep with their party’s platform or label?

And if you’re the type of voter with unquestioning loyalty to a political party, you just might be lost come next week.

For one black Democrat, the vote he casts next Tuesday boils down to gaining control of Congress no matter who wears a blue or a red political label.

“I don’t care what white boys are fighting with each other. I just want [the Democrats] to gain control of the House,” a Maryland man said.

He was reciting the party line being echoed by black standard-bearers across this nation, especially in close races like the one in the Old Dominion, where an Allen defeat could help Democrats recapture the Senate.

“I know the difference between a Republican and a Democrat,” a black D.C. woman said. “The Republicans believe in ‘trickle down’ and Democrats believe in ‘trickle up.’ ”

OK.

Earlier this month, Alexis Herman, a labor secretary in the Clinton administration, played nice during an Arlington event billed as a nonpartisan black family reunion. “This election is about getting our country back on the right track and moving in the right direction,” she said.

Mrs. Herman urged those in the multigenerational audience to work on voter turnout. The important thing “in turning out the vote is remembering what’s at stake in these midterm elections that are just as significant as the presidential election,” she said.

But Eunice Wilder, ex-wife of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, did not mince words.

“We don’t have three choices [for senator],” she said. “We may not know a lot about [Mr. Webb], but we do know about [Mr. Allen] and [he has] not served our purpose. It can’t be worse, and may be worth a try [to vote for the unknown].”

Until Thursday’s forum, I assumed there was little difference between Mr. Allen and Mr. Webb. But the eye-opening session gave voters an opportunity to go beyond campaign rhetoric.

Mr. Webb, a former Republican, discussed his ideas for policies that would favor the working class, such as universal health care, raising the minimum wage and closing corporate tax loopholes.

He also presented statistics about what he calls “the three Americas,” highlighting income disparities among whites, blacks and other minorities. And he didn’t back down from tough questions.

Mr. Webb is “not your Daddy’s Democrat,” either. So much for accepting easy assumptions and settling for hasty labels.


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