Friday, May 11, 2007

Black lawmakers say they are puzzled that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign hasn’t used its political machine to solicit endorsements from key rank-and-file elected Democrats in early primary states.

Most black Democrats are still uncommitted in their party’s 2008 presidential race, but several officials say they are impressed with the aggressive outreach of Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign.

Without a matching response from Mrs. Clinton, many said the New York Democrat could be facing a “groundswell” of support for Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, by this summer.

“If that occurs, Obama will sweep up a lot of people who would normally be with the Clintons,” said Georgia state Rep. Al Williams, chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.

Mr. Williams said he likes the Clintons personally and is watching Mrs. Clinton very closely but is not sure she knows she is in a real race.

“I find it interesting that I have not yet heard from them,” he said. “I have had eight different calls from the Obama camp and heard from him personally once already. They are very aggressive, and he turned it up considerably after April.”

Mr. Williams is not yet committed to a candidate and said he probably wouldn’t make such a commitment until summer’s end.

Florida state Sen. Al Lawson Jr. — recently elected the Florida Senate’s Democratic leader, and the longest-serving black politician in the state — said he too is puzzled by the Clinton campaign’s lack of aggression. He said the big question in his district is whether Mrs. Clinton can win the White House.

“Obama has really generated a lot of energy out there, and I look forward to meeting with him,” said Mr. Lawson, adding that he has also spoken with Obama campaign advisers.

Mr. Lawson said Mrs. Clinton isn’t using her political machine to its full advantage but said Mr. Obama needs to get past his advisers and start showing up in more black communities.

“The biggest fear I have, and I suspect many others have, is at some point Bill Clinton will turn on his network and charm, turn his machine on, and that will make it very difficult for Obama,” Mr. Lawson said. “Because even those members who are saying they are with Obama now, they still love Bill, and you may see those people sort of wavering once that happens, and that’s not a good place to be in.”

Mr. Obama’s recent trip to Texas did not please some of that state’s black Democrats, many of whom say they haven’t heard from him but aren’t really sure whether Mrs. Clinton can win either.

“If he came down here and spoke to us directly, I suspect many of us would jump out of our skin to help him,” said Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from Houston who is chairman of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

She said many of her members simply don’t know enough about Mr. Obama and are waiting to meet with him and are fairly sure that they will also meet with Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Obama made a trip to the University of Texas at Austin soon after his official announcement, speaking to a mostly white crowd of more than 20,000 supporters.

Mr. Obama needs to reach black communities in Texas, particularly at historically black colleges — anywhere black voters and elected officials can reach out to him and “put their hands on him,” Mrs. Thompson said.

An issue of interest to black voters in Texas, she said, is the future of historically black Texas Southern University, where the school’s chief financial officer has been convicted and its former president indicted for misuse of public funds for personal use.

“We need to hear from [Mr. Obama] on education funding, agriculture, energy, but more importantly, just hear from him,” Mrs. Thompson said.

Black lawmakers clearly see Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama as front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination, with a few acknowledging former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as someone they were considering.

“Personally, I see the two being the front-runners and that is not to take anything away from the others, but you have to narrow it down,” said Michigan state Rep. Brenda Clack, chairman of Michigan Black Legislative Caucus.

The Flint Democrat said she is “somewhat surprised” with the momentum behind Mr. Obama and the diversity of his support. “It is not just African-Americans who are singing his praises; more often than not, it is whites and others, and that is what is special about him,” Mrs. Clack said.

The size and diversity of Mr. Obama’s support has impressed younger black lawmakers, who are flocking to Mr. Obama as he visits more and more states.

California State Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat and vice chairman of her state’s legislative black caucus, made her decision to support Mr. Obama just before he arrived at the state party’s convention.

“For me, he is absolutely inspirational and has a unique background in community activism similar to mine, and he has a unique ability to inspire people to register to vote and to get to the polls those who do not vote regularly,” Ms. Bass said.

She could be a key endorsement in the nation’s most-populated state.

With nearly 20 years of experience as a grass-roots get-out-the-vote organizer and founder of the Community Coalition, a nonprofit drug prevention and education group, along with her rank in the statehouse, Ms. Bass can drive votes.

She said at least two others in her caucus are prepared to support Mr. Obama and expects she can help deliver California for the freshman senator.

“I think the race will be over on Feb. 6, and I think we can organize enough support for him to win in California using a grass-roots campaign, which is my background,” Ms. Bass said.

More than 20 states will hold their primaries on Feb. 5, nearly half of the country, including California, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Michigan.

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