African-American voter profile not carved in stone, locals say

January 21, 2004|HERB BROCK

On paper, Kenny Payne pretty much fits the profile of a typical African-American voter. He is a registered Democrat and usually votes for Democrats in races on the local, state and national levels.

But Payne insists that what is on that paper with his voter profile is written in pencil. It can be erased, he said.

"Yes, I am a Democrat and I normally vote for Democratic candidates in most races," said Payne, 20, of Danville, during an interview before Danville's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration Monday afternoon at First Baptist Church, Second and Walnut streets.

"But I am open to Republican candidates and the Republican Party," said the 2001 Danville High School graduate and current student at Kentucky State University.


He said he currently favors most Democrats because he believes they better represent his views on most issues, from the economy to civil rights to foreign affairs. However, he is "more than willing to consider" what Republicans have to say.

"I don't want to be put in a box politically, and I don't think African-Americans should want that, either," he said. "We (African-Americans) have specific issues that are important to us, like job and housing discrimination, but we should look at the views of the parties and the candidates on all issues.

"When we vote for Congress and for the president, it shouldn't be about just all our issues. It should be about issues that are important to all of America. We should want what's good for the whole country, all of its people."

Payne's comments and those of other young blacks at Monday's ceremony should be heartening to Republican Party leaders concerned about trying to find a way to pick up more black votes and a clean up an unfavorable image among most black voters.

In recent presidential elections, more than 90 percent of African-Americans have voted Democratic. In recent years, it appears most African-Americans see the Republican Party not as the "party of Abe Lincoln" but as the party of Strom Thurmond. And recent national polls indicate that the same pro-Democratic tilt exists as the 2004 presidential election nears, despite efforts by the Bush administration to reach out to minorities and the president's appointment of African-Americans Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice to prominent cabinet posts.

Many older African-Americans attending the King event said they appreciate some of Bush's moves regarding outreach to the black community and cabinet appointments, but they believe the president's actions have been political tokenism. Bottom line: They see no reason to join Payne in considering Republicans, at least not on the national level.

"I mostly vote Democrat, particularly in congressional and presidential races, and see no reason to change now," said Paul Lewis, 51, of Danville. "Democrats understand African-Americans and our issues a lot better than Republicans. In fact, Republicans generally don't care about us or our issues, at least not until lately."

While Republicans were instrumental in the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, Democrats have been the ones since then who have kept the pressure on the nation's political, industrial, business and educational institutions to provide access to blacks, he said.

"Republicans always say people should be able to make it on their own. But sometimes people, especially folks who have been held down for centuries through slavery and segregation, need a helping hand, someone to help them take that first step," he said. "The Democrats have provided that help. By and large, the Republicans haven't wanted to give it.

"Democrats want to change things, provide programs so everybody has a shot at good jobs and good educations. Keeping things the same, keeping opportunities limited. That's a Republican thing."

And it's a "thing" that isn't changing no matter what Bush and other Republican leaders say or do, said Norman Bartleson, longtime president of the Danville chapter of the NAACP.

"I think Bush and some Republicans seem like they want to come to the table and really talk about ways to improve job and educational opportunities for African-Americans, but they're sending mixed messages," Bartleson said.

"A year ago Bush gave a speech on Dr. King's birthday where he praised King and said we should all follow what he said and did to promote civil rights. Then, his administration goes to work to try get the Supreme Court to strike down the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy," he said.

"And earlier this week, the president put a wreath at Dr. King's tomb during the celebration of his actual birthday in Atlanta but then appoints (Charles Pickering) to a federal judgeship while the Senate's out of town," said Bartleson, referring to Bush's recess appointment of the controversial Mississippi judge, whose nomination had been blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

"It's like he's patting us on the back with one hand, then slapping us in the face with the other."

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