Monday, April 23, 2007

"Obama’s Rise Strains Loyalty on Clinton Turf"

NY Times:
Only a few months ago, the vast majority of black elected officials in New York were expected to support the presidential candidacy of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. But no longer.

In a series of interviews, a significant number of those officials now say they are undecided about whether to back Mrs. Clinton or one of her main rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the only black politician in the race.

The officials described themselves as impressed with the strength of Mr. Obama’s campaign in recent weeks, saying it reflected a grass-roots enthusiasm for Mr. Obama that many noticed among black voters in their own districts. And that could signal trouble for Mrs. Clinton, forcing her to devote precious attention to her home state, where blacks made up 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2004, just as she has had to scramble to keep black support nationwide.

Facing a potential drift of black support, the Clinton campaign has recently taken several steps: dispatching former President Bill Clinton to speak before black and Hispanic lawmakers in Albany earlier this year, and then to address the Rev. Al Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, in New York last week; using Bill Lynch, who was a top political adviser to former Mayor David N. Dinkins, to corral black support in New York City; and enlisting heavyweights from the black political establishment like Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, to help Mrs. Clinton court black leaders.

Many black New York officials have strongly supported Mrs. Clinton — not to mention her husband, starting with her first Senate campaign in 2000, when she was still in the White House and had only just established residency in the state.

But these officials said it had become increasingly clear to them that Mr. Obama, who has barely campaigned in New York, is no mere flash in the pan, and seems to possess the public approval ratings and campaign war chest needed to compete in a presidential contest.

“I would have supported Hillary if it were not for Barack Obama,” said Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, a leading figure in Harlem who said he had yet to make an endorsement. “He can identify with my African-American community in a way that no other candidate can.” Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, who represents Buffalo, and who has been contacted by one of Mrs. Clinton’s top political lieutenants, said she was similarly divided. “It’s a very difficult decision,” Ms. Peoples said. “I’ll really do a lot of soul-searching on this one.”

Assemblyman N. Nick Perry, Democrat of Brooklyn, said many black politicians were mindful of what happened in 1988, when overwhelmingly large numbers of black primary voters in New York supported the presidential candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to the surprise of black politicians who supported his rivals. He said that “there was a lot of atoning that had to be done” afterward among those politicians.

“This is bigger than Jesse Jackson,” Mr. Perry, who remained undecided, said of Mr. Obama’s candidacy. “When you look at Obama, his potential seems quite explosive.”

It is still early in the campaign, and Mrs. Clinton, whose political operation is aggressive and wide-reaching in the state, has plenty of time to consolidate her support among black New York leaders.

Speaking on behalf of the Clinton campaign, Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, acknowledged that Mr. Obama had stirred “an element of ethnic pride” among black elected officials. But in the end, Mr. Meeks said, Mrs. Clinton’s years of experience in the White House and in the Senate gave her an edge over Mr. Obama.

Perhaps the most important figure working to round up black support for Mrs. Clinton has been Mr. Rangel, the leading elected official in New York’s black political establishment.

Mr. Rangel, of Harlem, an early and important supporter of Mrs. Clinton’s first Senate campaign, invited black leaders in Upper Manhattan to a meeting in recent weeks, where Mrs. Clinton made a direct appeal for their support — even as she took a moment to praise Mr. Obama, according to one person who attended the event.

Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Harlem, who attended the meeting and is undecided about the race, said Mr. Rangel “feels ownership” in Mrs. Clinton because of his past association with her and was “working overtime” to round up support for her presidential campaign.

“That’s quite formidable,” Mr. Wright said, referring to the clout Mr. Rangel brings in championing Mrs. Clinton’s cause.

And yet Mr. Wright, who is close to Mr. Rangel, acknowledged that “there is some conflict” among black leaders now that there is a choice between Mrs. Clinton, a longtime ally, and Mr. Obama.

“I’m certainly undecided right now,” Mr. Wright said, adding that Mr. Obama’s “candidacy is making me quite proud.”

In an interview, Mr. Rangel sought to play down the situation, and pointedly noted that he did not know of any elected official in New York who had actually endorsed Mr. Obama, though he acknowledged that Mr. Obama had substantial support in the state based on the money he has raised there.

“Everyone I talk with supports her,” said Mr. Rangel, who talks up Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy in television and radio appearances and who attends fund-raisers on her behalf. “I don’t know Obama supporters in New York.”

As for black leaders in New York who have not already backed her, Mr. Rangel seemed to suggest it was just a matter of time before they did. “There are a lot of people who are just waiting for her to ask them,” Mr. Rangel said, referring to Mrs. Clinton. But the fence-sitting among these black leaders is a potentially troubling sign for Mrs. Clinton, who, like Bill Clinton, has long enjoyed considerable support among blacks, who are a crucial component of her home-state base.

The vacillation among black leaders in New York was all the more striking as neither Mr. Obama nor his advisers appeared to be spending much, if any, time in the state trying to round up their support before the Feb. 5 primary.

Indeed, many of the leaders interviewed said they had not heard from Mr. Obama or officials in his campaign, though the state had moved its primary to the first Tuesday in February from the first Tuesday in March.

Mr. Obama even turned down a recent invitation to address the New York State Legislature’s black and Hispanic caucus. Still, in some cases, the political leaders said they had been hearing from constituents who support Obama.

Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry of Queens said he had not endorsed Mrs. Clinton, though her camp had reached out to him, while Mr. Obama’s had not. He said that while Mrs. Clinton was “connected in special ways to the minority community,” Mr. Obama’s candidacy had profound appeal as well.

“His presence as a legitimate black politician ata national level brings a certain pride,” Mr. Aubry said. “It makes you have to make a choice.”

State Senator Kevin S. Parker, Democrat of Brooklyn, said he thought the “vast majority” of black leaders in New York would have already backed Mrs. Clinton if not for Mr. Obama.

“I do share the view that it has been complicated by Senator Obama’s presence,” Mr. Parker said, of the decision about whom to endorse. “I think people are split.”

Even Mr. Rangel, in the interview, acknowledged having “a lot of racial pride and identification” with Mr. Obama’s candidacy, and noted that he had actually encouraged Mr. Obama to run for president.

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