At First Ford Failed – But Try, Try Again for the Sake of Black America, by Ak’Bar Shabazz

After his party’s defeat in the 2002 elections, Democratic House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (MO) resigned his congressional leadership post. A more liberal colleague – Nancy Pelosi (CA) – succeeded him, but not without a challenge from Harold Ford, Jr. (TN).

Ford, an African-American, represents a new breed of politician. Only 32 years old, he was born after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He recognizes America’s past injustices, but doesn’t let them cloud his judgment on present-day issues. He epitomizes the growing ranks of moderate and conservative black politicians.

You’d think Ford’s quest for his party’s top congressional job would excite black politicians and pundits. To the contrary. Ford’s candidacy mostly elicited disdain among his colleagues. At a gathering of black pundits in Washington, Professor Ron Walters of the University of Maryland said of Ford, “He’s too right of center, and he needs to come home.”

Just where is this “home,” and is it someplace black America wants its political power concentrated?

In the wake of the Republicans’ election domination, I think Democrats are failing to recognize voting trends. They are mistakenly running hard and fast to the left. With Pelosi leading her party in the House of Representatives, Republicans couldn’t be happier. Older black politicians, to their peril, seem to be running even further to the left.

In post-9/11 America, with our nation close to war, public opinion is moving right. Polling data shows the Democrats failed to ignite their base this year, and their incoherent message lacked appeal. This trend appears to include black voters. In states such as Georgia and Florida – where black turnout increased – Republicans won significant local, state and national victories. In Maryland, black votes are thought to have been essential to the election of the first Republican governor in 36 years.

But these trends don’t seem to register among those claiming to be our leaders. At the aforementioned meeting, Jesse Jackson continued trying to frighten us to gain support. “Next year, the right wing is going to control the White House, the House, the Senate and the courts. Virtually every civil rights remedy will be made illegal next year.” He offered no constructive suggestions, offering only race-baiting and fear-mongering.

“We’re not so stupid that we cannot vote our interests,” said National Newspapers Publishing Association editor-in-chief George Curry of the black electorate. “Democrats are more in our interests.” Curry and the others seem to think that if you’re black and don’t vote Democratic, you’re stupid.

A 1996 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found black Americans were evenly divided in describing themselves as conservative, liberal and independent. A Joint Center survey of black elected officials released this year found that younger black officeholders are becoming impatient with the liberal status quo and are more interested in looking at conservative ideas such as school choice and Social Security privatization than their older colleagues. This bitter generation gap hurt Harold Ford, Jr. in his leadership race.

Just how conservative is Congressman Ford anyway? Not very, according to his vote ratings. The Human Rights Campaign – a homosexual lobby – gave him a perfect rating for his 2001 votes, while the conservative Family Research Council rated him at only 42 percent. The radical environmentalists at the League of Conservation Voters agreed with him 73 percent of the time in their survey, but the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave him only 55 percent. And the American Conservative Union gives Ford a 12 percent lifetime rating.

Ford is a loyal Democrat, but he sees the writing on the wall. In a year when his party lost significant power – and where his radical Democratic colleagues Cynthia McKinney (GA) and Earl Hilliard (AL) lost their seats to primary opponents – he realizes that real solutions, not just party loyalty, is important to voters. But most of his brethren seem to prefer to remain comfortably in bed with the left-wing radicals. It appears as if they’ve already gone to sleep.

(Ak’bar Shabazz, an Atlanta native, is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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