MAXWELL:  Democrats’ ill-informed do-gooders

8/25/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When race, diversity and multiculturalism are at issue, Republicans get into trouble because too many of them are, well, just plain insensitive and mean. Democrats get into hot water on these same issues because, even when trying to do the right thing, they often wind up outdoing the Keystone Kops.

The GOP’s recently completed national convention in San Diego clearly showed that the Party of Lincoln believes that, essentially, America exists for white people, especially for white males. Of the 1,990 delegates at the televised spectacle, for example, only 52 were black, a shameful 2.6 percent. Hispanics, Asians and American Indians were in even shorter supply.

Ebullient, self-righteous Democrats are determined to avoid a similar fate at their yakfest in Chicago. They intend to show TV Land a pluralistic America _ a patchwork quilt of diverse colors, shapes, sizes, accents, abilities, religious denominations and, yes, sexual orientations.

But in their zeal to raise the bigger tent, the Democrats, at least those in the Sunshine State, have done something dumber than dumb for the sake of multiculturalism. Officials here are so proud of their efforts to be inclusive that they published the party’s delegate list and distributed it to news-hungry reporters who had been bummed out in San Diego. On its face, the list seems innocuous enough, and its purpose _ informing the press by offering demographic details on each delegate _ is well-intentioned.

But many of its descriptions are patently offensive, incorrect and, unwittingly, reflect the Democrats’ own biases and nasty stereotypes. The descriptions of state Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, for instance, are some of the most revealing. According to the document, Chestnut, Gainesville’s first black mayor, “hates charter schools” and is “extremely articulate.” Those who know Chestnut, Democrats and Republicans alike, say that she is even-tempered and thoughtful, even when she disagrees with them. Few would say that she “hates” anything.

“Why would they (Democratic convention organizers) say that?” she asked of the party’s statement.

The truth is that, although she worries that charter schools _ public schools operated by private alliances but supported by tax dollars _ may hurt public education, Chestnut, as head of the House Education Committee, made no attempt during the last session to block legislation authorizing charter schools. In fact, she is willing to grant them an earnest trial period.

Jo Miglino, the party spokeswoman responsible for distributing the list, said of the charter school comment: “It was probably bad information given to me. If the descriptions are not 100 percent accurate, I apologize.”

All right, so the charter school comment was a mistake. But what about the latent racism in the description of Chestnut as being “extremely articulate”? The implication, of course, is that African-Americans, as a group, are an inarticulate breed. But not Chestnut. Noooo! She is different. She is articulate. The party can let her speak into selected cameras on the convention floor.

The cynicism of this thinking stinks to high heaven.

Miglino and her staff did not treat State Rep. Annie Betancourt of Miami any better. Because she is Hispanic, a female and a Democrat, the writers of the list describe her as “an endangered species.” Miami’s Hispanic population is overwhelmingly Republican, and the politicians are mostly male.

And what did Betancourt say of the description? “That’s awful!”

Although Florida Democrats, bless them, unintentionally embarrassed and insulted Chestnut and Betancourt and others, they have stupidly exposed Ray Zeller, a Miami delegate, to the wrath of homophobes.

The list depicts Zeller as “retired, but works with underprivileged kids, gay and in a 20-year relationship.” The problem, Zeller told the St. Petersburg Times, is that, until now, few people in his community knew of his homosexuality. And, by the bye, he and his partner have been together 27 years _ not 20.

Zeller was selected as a delegate primarily because of his outstanding work with at-risk children and his advocacy for education. He says that he is going to Chicago to speak for the needs of children, not to focus on gay rights issues. “What difference does it make, and why should I be singled out because of my sexual orientation?” he asked. “It really tees me off.”

The ill-informed, do-gooding Miglino said: “I was told that this is something he talks about and since this is the party of diversity, we’re highlighting people who are active, and out, and working in different areas that show the diversity of the party.”

Indeed, the Florida Democratic Party went too far this time. But, in all fairness, the party must be credited with working hard to bring a rainbow coalition to the Windy City. The 203 delegates are equally divided between male and female; 40 are older than 65 and seven are younger than 30; two-thirds are white, and 30 percent are African-American.

Will Republicans read the Democrats’ figures and do better during their next convention and in the party generally? Do not bank on it. And have the Democrats learned that bean-counting for the sake of diversity is perilous? Hardly.

Republicans will continue to be insensitive and mean. And Democrats? Unfortunately, Democrats will be Democrats and will never tie a tourniquet around their bumbling, bleeding hearts.