MAXWELL:  Black Democrats should stay put

1/14/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When State Rep. Cynthia Chestnut telephoned me last week, I sensed an anger in her voice I had not heard before. She was livid that white Democrats had ousted Willie Logan as the party’s first black House speaker-designate and had replaced him with Anne Mackenzie, a white.

The official word is that the white leadership lost faith in Logan’s suitability in these conservative times.

Perhaps they are correct in their thinking. But black legislators say that the dumping of Logan confirms the benign racism that long threatened to surface and redefine the party that is home to black liberals from Broward and Miami-Dade counties, good ole boys from the Panhandle and white patricians from areas such as Pinellas County.

In other words, the state Democratic Party is a family of strange bedfellows, tolerating one another mainly because of their contempt for Republicans. Now, such contempt may no longer keep blacks snugly on their side of the bed. The covers have been pulled back, exposing even yellow dogs, such as Chestnut, to the reality of cutthroat racial politics.

“We’re having a divorce in the family,” Chestnut said. “The black family member has been taken for granted. And when you have a member of the family who has been taken for granted, you are likely to lose that family member. I think African-Americans across this state will need to reassess where they are today.”

For the first time in recent memory, blacks are openly acknowledging racism in their party. “We had been told, quietly, that some white members felt they couldn’t send campaign brochures out to voters in their districts with a picture of a black speaker-designate on them,” Chestnut said.

Others, such as Leon Russell, president of Florida’s NAACP, are equally as angry. He has invited black Democrats to his organization’s Jan. 24 board meeting in West Palm Beach. “At some point, the loyalty of African-Americans in the state of Florida has to be rewarded,” he said. “When promises are made, promises must be kept.”

Still others want blacks to boycott the governor’s race or switch to the GOP. I understand this outrage, but before they join the GOP or hold out on Nov. 3, they had better remember a few things: Florida Republicans have never needed black support and do not need it now. For example, the two Republican governors elected since Reconstruction, Claude Kirk and Bob Martinez, succeeded without blacks.

Remember, too, that the GOP took over the House and the Senate without blacks. And, most certainly, Jeb Bush does not need blacks to whip any Democrat in the next gubernatorial race. Buddy MacKay, however, cannot win without the black vote.

So, when Rep. Rudy Bradley says that white Democrats have “emancipated” blacks to work with anyone, he is right and wrong. Sure, because of Logan, blacks no longer have a moral obligation to stick with the party. But they should not naively believe that the GOP has anything better to offer.

By joining Republicans, blacks will simply speed up the process of making the GOP the new popular majority party, which also will take blacks for granted. Again, the GOP is doing just fine as the minority party. Why would it need blacks after becoming the majority party?

Frankly, blacks need to stay put and force Democrats to take them seriously again. After all, white Democrats want to regain power. Black lawmakers can play a major role in such a comeback by getting large numbers of blacks to register and vote as Democrats.

Blacks should remember that Democratic governors, not Republicans, appointed blacks to high office and judgeships; that white Democrats implemented the programs that most benefit Florida’s poor and minority populations; that historically the state’s most racist and anti-poor policies were the handiwork of Republicans.

Even South Florida Cubans, outraged by the GOP’s anti-immigrant policies, are looking at Democratic candidates for the first time.

If black lawmakers want to make big changes, they should join forces with Hispanics to rebuild the Democratic Party into an entity that will not take either of their interests for granted and will, at the same time, scare the hell out of Republicans. Granted, although the black vote did not put Kirk and Martinez into office, the lack of it prevented them from being re-elected.

I predict that much of the anger will subside among black Democrats, most of the wounds will heal, and cooler heads will steer the party back to sanity and viability.