Politics & Policy

Campaigning Like It’s 1896

Gore plays the race card — big time.

Al Gore campaigns on the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. Jesse Jackson invokes the 1896 Supreme Court decision legalizing racial discrimination. Louvan Harris graphically describes a modern lynching. And Janet Reno raises the specter of denying minority voters their right to cast ballots.

Those tuning in to the 2000 presidential election since Thursday could be forgiven for thinking that slavery, segregation, lynchings and the right to vote are among the top issues in the 2000 presidential election. They’re not. But, Democrats believe, they are among the surest ways to get minority voters to the polls.

Gore, campaigning in a black church Saturday in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suggested that George W. Bush is speaking in code when he discusses his vision for the Supreme Court. Gore, of course, is happy to interpret.

“When my opponent, Governor Bush, says that he will appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court,” Gore said, “I often think of the strictly constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being.”

Even for Al Gore — whose race-baiting Democratic primary rival Bill Bradley called “particularly offensive” — this is a new low.

Just two short months ago, Gore and his fellow Democrats ridiculed Bush for the multicultural emphasis of the Republican Convention. Too inclusive, they said. Insincere. Today, though, Gore says that Bush — who says he would support a federal law to ban racial profiling — wants to return the country to a regime slavery.

The reason is clear: Gore needs a huge black turnout to win. “I think there’s no question that the African American community is the base of the Democratic Party,” said Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley, Sunday morning on CNN. “So we’re going to be working very hard to get that base out.”

Much of that hard work involves frightening voters. Louvan Harris, the sister of Texas dragging victim James Byrd Jr., joined Gore on the campaign trail over the weekend and graphically described the horrific crime.

“They spray-painted him black, chained him to a truck, dragged him three miles. His head came off, his arms — dismembered his whole body,” Harris said in Philadelphia. “We have a governor of Texas who doesn’t think that’s a hate crime. My question to him is, if that isn’t hate, what is hate to George Bush? We had an opportunity to do something for our family. He did nothing.”

Too much? Gore stood by silently. And Rev. Jesse Jackson, appearing Sunday on CNN, defended the recent NAACP ad featuring Byrd’s daughter. Jackson, was asked: “Is the NAACP going too far in suggesting that Governor Bush is someone who could support the murder of James Byrd?”

“No,” he said.

And never content to leave politics to the political realm, the Clinton-Gore team has once again called on Attorney General Janet Reno to denounce voter intimidation. Federal law contains “special protections for the rights of minority voters and guarantees that they can vote free from acts that intimidate or harass them,” Reno said on Thursday. “For example, actions of persons designed to interrupt or intimidate voters at polling places located in minority areas by questioning or challenging them, or by photographing or videotaping them, under the pretext that these are actions to uncover illegal voting may violate federal voting rights law and will not be tolerated.”

Reno’s words echo those she and President Clinton spoke in 1998, days before a record minority turnout helped Democrats counter historical trends by gaining House seats and picking up unlikely governorships and Senate seats.

Days before the ‘98 elections, Clinton challenged Republicans to “stand up and put a stop” to their alleged minority intimidation. “For the last several elections there have been examples in various states of Republicans either actually or threatening to try to intimidate or try to invalidate the votes of African-Americans in precincts that are overwhelmingly African-American — mostly places where they think it might change the outcome of the election,” said Clinton. Reno reiterated Clinton’s thoughts, vowing extra security to thwart any GOP attempts to keep minority voters from exercising their rights.

Republicans, of course, cried foul. Where, they asked, have such violations taken place? No answer from the Justice Department, then or now.

Last week, New Jersey Democrats made similar charges, again without proof. “You can be sure that someplace, somewhere, our adversaries in the Republican party are thinking about ways to deter African-Americans from voting and Latinos from voting,” said Angelo Genova, general counsel for the state Democratic party. “Because they know these are people who generally support our views and generally support our party.”

Seven years ago, in Governor Christie Whitman’s first statewide election, GOP strategist Ed Rollins boasted of paying “walking around money” to black ministers in New Jersey, though he later claimed he was joking and authorities found no evidence of wrongdoing. So, to be fair, there is at least some historical basis for concern in New Jersey. But still, no evidence.

American democracy is more representative and more legitimate when voters — minority and non-minority — go to the polls. The Justice Department has a role to play in ensuring all Americans have an opportunity to vote, and to do so without difficulty. If voters — again, minority and non-minority — are being harassed at the polls the Attorney General should prosecute the offenders, swiftly and harshly. And she should name names. She should tell America who is committing such acts and provide evidence to back up her charges.

That Janet Reno and her fellow Democrats have not done so demonstrates that their “warnings” are more about politics than law enforcement.

If the Gore campaign and Democrats nationally continue their recent use of race in such reprehensible ways — slaves, segregation, the right to vote, etc. — the vice president may spend the last few days of the election hoping this 1999 prediction was wrong:

“If a candidate wants to divide this nation instead of uniting it, if a candidate deals with fear instead of hope,” Gore said to a conference of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, “they will pay at the ballot box.”

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