Coulda been a contender

One of these days the Democrats will have an African-American presidential candidate who will provide more than the featured entertainment for the evening, and who won’t be patronizingly referred to by some as the “conscience” of his or her party. Personally, I’m a little sick of that.

We’ve been the entertainment for America ever since we were first dragged off the boat. As for pricking the conscience of — or being a replacement conscience for — a Democratic Party that many believe has stumbled off to the right and away from its traditional base, I figure it’s a lost cause trying to prick Massa Boss’ conscience to make him do right. The only reliable way to make the boss do the right thing — and to be as concerned about your issues as you are — is to bump the boss aside, grab hold of the wheel, and steer that vehicle yourself.

The next time an African-American runs for president, I don’t want to hear folks laughing uproariously and appreciatively at his or her jokes and quick wit. I don’t want to read about how he or she is the “moral compass” among all the candidates when it’s obvious one of those morally blind candidates will be the one receiving the nomination. What’s the use of having a moral compass in a political race if it’s not guiding you toward victory?

Screw the moral compass, and damn the jokes. What I want to hear in the room is the sound of respect — and maybe even a little bit of fear — because the audience realizes that this particular African-American candidate just might wind up in the White House, calling the shots in the most powerful nation on earth.

When that day comes, no one will be laughing, because it won’t be a joke.

When the Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate and Traveling Roadshow came to town on Oct. 26, it was the Rev. Al Sharpton who stole the show. No contest, hands-down. All you had to do was listen to the sheer volume of applause whenever he delivered one of his patented heat-seeking quotes.

Just like his political mentors — the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the late, great Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the fiery, controversial and frequently very effective New York congressman who represented Harlem from 1944 to 1969 — Sharpton is a walking, talking, sound bite machine. This quality alone has made him, at various points in his career, a pundit’s dream. Even pundits who can’t stand the man must admit that characters like Sharpton can spice up a story in a minute.

But also like Jackson, Sharpton doesn’t stand a chance of winning the nomination, let alone the election. For that matter, neither does Carol Moseley Braun, the only other African-American candidate in the race. It’s historic that there are two black presidential candidates in the race, and the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman is particularly notable. But neither of them is going to the White House.

This isn’t news. I suspect Jackson knew, and Sharpton and Moseley Braun know, there is no chance to win. That’s because taking residence in the White House was never really the point. The point was to make the statement that it was actually possible for a black person to swim with the big fish and not get swallowed. The first time Jackson ran, his ability to dominate the discussion was both surprising and impressive to just about everyone except those who knew anything about Jackson’s staggering potential and abilities. His speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention was one of the most memorable to ever be delivered at such an event. When he ran the second time, he made an even stronger showing.

Those who are Jackson fans would say he helped pave the way for a black presidency, which was also the point. Jackson’s detractors would prefer to say that he was nothing more than an ego-driven irritant who did little more than siphon off votes from legitimate contenders, similar to what Ross Perot did when he stuck his big toe in the water and stirred up a relative tidal wave — for a fleeting moment.

But wherever you stood on Jackson’s candidacy, I can’t see the need for a repeat performance. How much “paving of the way” do we need? And what’s worse, despite Sharpton’s notable — and frequently underestimated — intellect, his verbal dexterity and his traditional Democratic values that reflect the views of thousands of hardcore Democrats everywhere, recent polling data shows that he is making much shallower inroads into the white voter base than did Jackson, who went so far as to actually win the state of Michigan during the Democratic primary his first time around.

Black folks still apparently think Sharpton is the man to vote for. According to special voter analysis conducted by the Gallup Organization for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), an organization which serves more than 200 African-American newspapers, Sharpton leads the pack by a wide margin ahead of retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark — among black voters. Among whites, however, Sharpton comes in dead last, with only 1 percent of those polled saying they would vote for him. Among whites, Clark came in first, with 22 percent, which, as stated in an article written by Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA’s Washington correspondent, is the exact same percentage received by Sharpton among blacks.

Edney’s article went on to point out that a New York Times analysis of Jackson’s two presidential campaigns – the first in 1984, the second in 1988 – showed that Jackson won 77 percent of the black vote and 5 percent of the white vote in 1984. Four years later, Jackson received 92 percent of all ballots cast by African-Americans and more than doubled his white support to 12 percent.

The road was paved. Following Jackson, the most likely African-American to have an actual shot at the presidency wasn’t a Democrat but a Republican, Colin Powell. Powell decided to pass on the opportunity, but all during the time he was giving the matter some thought, I don’t recall anyone splitting their sides with laughter at his quick wit. When Powell spoke, a lot of high-level Republicans were listening very closely to every single word he uttered because they took this man seriously. And, yes, some were even a little bit scared. Why? Because they knew Powell just might have been able to pull it off.

The Democrats had better start taking notes.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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