'BLACK PARTY' IMAGE SPLITS DEMOCRATS
Polman, Dick. Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, Pa] 14 Jan 1990: A.1.
It's not the kind of issue with which Democrats like to be identified; locally and nationally, the party promotes a "multiracial" image. But it now appears that the Democratic Party, which since 1951 has elected every mayor from Joseph Clark to Wilson Goode, faces a serious problem.
Party regulars, consultants and activists all say that the city's dominant political vehicle is increasingly seen by white voters as the "black party," a phenomenon that has battered Democrats in other cities, in the Deep South and in recent national elections.
And in Philadelphia, the problem is aggravated by the political unpopularity of the city's first black mayor. In a private Democratic poll conducted last summer, Goode was viewed unfavorably by 66 percent of all voters surveyed; only 23 percent gave positive marks. Even black Democratic committeemen report antipathy toward Goode in their own neighborhoods.
The "black party" image could have a profound impact on the party's future in Philadelphia. Many city Democrats fear the political equivalent of apocalypse: the election next year of the first Republican mayor since 1947.
"The situation is a disaster," says Patrick Swygert, an executive vice president of Temple University, who is black and has close ties to most
Democratic factions. "We're setting ourselves up for the John Lindsay syndrome," a reference to the New York City mayoral race of 1965, when Lindsay, a moderate white Republican congressman, got himself elected in a Democratic town.
"And there's no magic solution," Swygert says, "because there are no senior party brokers, no council of elders anymore, who can bring everyone together."
But not all Democrats share the "black party" perception. "People aren't voting race, they're voting issues," says City Councilman Lucien E. Blackwell, a mayoral hopeful. "People are feeling the pinch of federal cuts (by GOP presidents), so they blame the mayor. It's time for Philadelphia to get past the race question."
City party Chairman Robert A. Brady says the party remains vibrantly multiracial, but fears that many Democratic activists don't see it that way anymore. "This could be a problem I need to talk to them more about," he says. "I probably need to sell better to them."
Nevertheless, black political operatives such as Jerome Mondesire, an aide to U.S. Rep. William H. Gray 3d, have picked up on white Democratic discontent. "White people have always asked black people to vote for whites," Mondesire says. "But now we're not supposed to ask for the same thing from whites? Even though the black political community has reached maturity? Just because there's racism (among voters) doesn't mean you quit fighting it."
The "black party" image is being fed by a number of developments:
* Whites are leaving the party in growing numbers, at a time when the black community has become an ascendant political force in the city. In May 1983 (when Goode won the Democratic mayoral primary), whites made up 53.5 percent of the party; today, 42 percent. Black Democrats exceeded whites by 14,000 in the spring of 1987; today, the gap is 53,000.
* White Democratic leaders fear that white voters, essential to the party's success, are being turned off in increasing numbers, as black leaders like Gray, Blackwell and state Sen. Chaka Fattah busily maneuver among themselves for power.
* In the white community, particularly the Northeast, the party is failing to attract enough new blood. The white party membership from which such leaders would emerge is increasingly disenchanted. "I must've heard it 50 times, from moderates . . . expressing serious reservations about staying in the party," says Mark Aronchick, a fund-raiser and former city solicitor.
* To many, the "black" image implies ideological baggage; former City Controller Joseph C. Vignola says Democrats risk being seen - unfairly - as "the party for underachievers," a party that aids the less fortunate but doesn't know how to reach the young, white generation that came of age under former President Ronald Reagan.
"Reagan plus Goode equals Republicans," says Democratic consultant Saul Shorr, referring to the mayor's poor standing among white voters. Shorr lives in Philadelphia and has worked on Democratic campaigns nationwide. Reagan "got white ethnics to focus on lifestyle and patriotism. . . . And even though his federal cuts have helped starve the cities, a lot of these voters in Philadelphia don't focus on that. Democrats are 'black people' who are trying to deny them basic services. Race is the most important factor in politics today."
Chairman Brady says that money-raisers "aren't qualified" to speak on race, nor are "hired gun" consultants. If the party has a "black" image, he says, it's because Republicans are exploiting racial fears in white neighborhoods. "We're not a racist party; the Republicans are," he says.
But one black committeeman from West Philadelphia insists, "Whites in the party are terrified that black folks are the deciding factor in the party."
The party boasts 72 percent of the city's 962,786 registered voters, but this is the lowest percentage since 1973. And in cold numbers, there are now 201,000 fewer registered Democrats than in December 1983, after the election of Goode; since then, GOP enrollment has jumped by 62,000. Moreover, recent elections have shown, particularly in the Northeast, that registration is misleading, because white Democrats routinely vote for the GOP.
White Democrats are also in a surly mood. A poll conducted last month for lawyer Peter Hearn, a white independent who said he might seek the Democratic mayoral nod, concluded that 76 percent of white Democrats believed that the city was going downhill; when asked why, the most common response was "poor city government," a swipe at Goode.
Michael Stack, a white Northeast Philadelphia ward leader for 20 years, says publicly what many white Democrats say privately: "Goode has been more of a black man than a Democrat, more concerned with putting blacks in power. Three of his four cabinet members are black. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably do the same thing. But he's supposed to be the number one Democrat." Blacks point out that, under Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, the cabinet was all white.
Stack's ward never did support Goode. But Democrats who canvassed last autumn in Center City say that even white liberals appear cool to the notion of another black candidate. Strategists such as Michael Foglietta, who helped direct a number of city campaigns in the '80s, are noting this.
"I just can't see a black being elected mayor next time," he says. "The super-liberal white faction, the people any black candidate needs, are most disappointed by Goode's performance."
It angers Mondesire when white party leaders tell him that whites won't vote for a black next year. He calls this racist - Foglietta and others say the argument is based on pragmatic politics alone - and says that Gray, a political kingpin in the city, is pushing hard for a multiracial coalition. He cites Gray's backing last year of a white district attorney candidate, Walter M. Phillips Jr., who won 85 percent of the black vote in November.
Mondesire says, "Rizzo ran this city into the ground, but you don't hear anyone saying that another Italian-American shouldn't run for mayor. Now, why is that? Why should another black candidate be judged by Wilson Goode's standard?"
In fact, history shows that white Philadelphians do cross racial lines in city elections. Goode, weakened by MOVE, still won an estimated 20 percent of the white vote in 1987. In West Philadelphia, Gray has enjoyed considerable white support, and a private Phillips poll last summer gave the congressman a 51 percent favorability rating among white Democrats. (Twelve percent of respondents rated Gray unfavorably, and the rest had no opinion.)
Gray has been pushing Councilman George R. Burrell Jr. for mayor. Blackwell, who, like Burrell, is black, has been quietly wooing white ward leaders. Still, one young Northeast leader came away from his meeting convinced that the outspoken Blackwell would be "a disaster." He warns that if Blackwell were to win the party primary, a Republican would win in November, because "there's still a white majority (53 percent) of voters in this town."
Analysts frame the Democratic dilemma this way: Too many whites could be turned off to a citywide candidate who plays well in the black community; on the other hand, if blacks, the most reliable Democratic voters, aren't turned on, the Democrats appear doomed anyway.
Indeed, some Democrats fear a poor minority turnout, the residue of black disenchantment with Goode and the political process itself. One black committeeman, fresh from knocking on doors in his neighborhood, foresees "a Clint Eastwood 'Pale Rider' type," probably Republican, propelled to power with white Democratic votes - while blacks stay home in heavy numbers.
Faced with this worst-case scenario - whites defecting and blacks abstaining - the party will require strong leadership during the next administration in order to rebound, Democrats say. Because of Goode's political weakness, black party factions today are fighting among themselves Gray vs. Blackwell over the mayoral race, Gray vs. Fattah over the district attorney's race last fall.
White party strategists view these maneuverings with suspicion. "Is Gray's objective to elect the next mayor, or simply to prevent Blackwell from becoming mayor?" Foglietta asks. "Does Blackwell really want to be mayor, or does he just want to tell Gray 'I'm the black leader in town'? Until we work out those problems, we can't talk about winning the mayor's race."
"We're not gonna stop fighting," says Mondesire, "unless everyone else stops, too."
Blackwell acknowledges that party leaders are too weak to broker these disputes. "I do what I have to do," he says. "I have no boss. We still have a lot of coming together to do, as a party." But he says white Democrats shouldn't get so upset: "Gray and I aren't doing anything that everybody else doesn't do. It's just politics. But when you have two African-Americans doing it, some people see evil in that."
Still, many Democrats say these fights are draining morale. It's widely believed that Phillips' district attorney campaign, backed by Gray, was severely damaged last spring when he was forced to wage a costly primary against Wendella Fox, a black candidate backed by Fattah. (Fattah, sources say, has no desire to follow Gray's political dictates.)
Everyone urged Fox to pull out. She refused; a generation ago, in an era of strong parties, such insubordination was less common. "I was shocked I couldn't get Fox to pull out," says Brady. ". . . We did everything we could. It just got out of control."
"Phillips got caught in the middle," says a black committeeman from Wynnefield, "and that could continue to happen. . . . You won't find too many good (white) pilots willing to ram their planes into the side of the ship."
At the very least, black and white leaders agree that new blood would help infuse the party with fresh purpose. But the best potential candidates today, many say, are mostly found in the black community; state Reps. Dwight Evans and Gordon Linton are frequently mentioned. By contrast, the pickings seem increasingly slim in the white river wards and in the Northeast - where the GOP has elected two city councilmen, a state senator and six state representatives.
"How can you recruit people?" Northeast ward leader Michael Stack retorts. "What can you offer them? In my part of town, you have no chance of being elected, not without the right mayoral candidate at the top of the ticket."
Recruitment "is something we need to do better," said party chairman Brady. "We need to get more good young ones involved. They belong here."
The bottom line, says one Northeast Democratic committeeman, is that the GOP is wooing all the best prospects. "I've been to a couple of Republican functions," he says. "They're all very pleasant and smart and personable and polite. Like game-show hosts."
In the long run, says former City Controller Vignola, a "black" image means that too many moderate-income whites will dismiss the Democrats as the party that spends for the poor at the expense of taxpayers. What is needed, some party strategists argue, is a new message and a broader base.
Several years ago, David Fineman, a Philadelphia lawyer and Democratic fund-raiser, brought in Ralph Whitehead to speak with some party loyalists. A communications professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies the electorate, Whitehead believes that Democrats must attract a largely white group of young voters he calls "new collars" - service industry workers who are less unionized than their parents, and wary of big government, big unions and big business.
As one white party leader puts it, "In city politics, these people feel unrepresented. These are two-income families who want to afford a rowhouse, and they have to believe the party speaks to them. It'll be a long, hard fight, but that's where we've got to go to work."
"Thousands of them are out there in the Philadelphia neighborhoods," Whitehead says. "They're not blue collar, not liberal yuppies, not part of any interest group. The traditional Democratic map of the electorate is getting dusty."
Mondesire doesn't deny the need to reach these voters; the trick is to woo them without alienating the black base. "We've allowed ourselves to be painted into a corner" as the "black" party, he says. "But with real leadership, we can still build a multi-ethnic party. Democrats have always succeeded as a coalition. That's what you had in 1983, and that has to happen again in 1991."
Credit: Dick Polman, Inquirer Staff Writer
Caption: PHOTO (4)
1. Jerome Mondesire, aide to Rep. William H. Gray 3d. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / ED HILLE)
2. Democratic consultant Saul Shorr: "Race is the most important factor in politics today." (The Philadelphia Inquirer / WILLIAM F. STEINMETZ)
3. Robert A. Brady; "We're not a racist party"
4. Michael Stack; Longtime ward leader in Northeast
Copyright Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. Jan 14, 1990