Making Amends Early And Often
by Karen Tumulty/Detroit
TIME, April 28 -- Few politicians would jump more quickly than Al Gore at the opportunity to spend three days with a few hundred bureaucrats droning on about the intricacies of development grants and tax credits. But as with almost everything the Vice President does these days, it was hard to miss the bits of political groundwork being laid here and there at last week's White House Community Empowerment Conference in Detroit. In between sessions, Gore sped from one photo opportunity to the next with the city's hugely popular black mayor, Dennis Archer. They toured the new African-American history museum, inspected operations at a corrugated-box plant owned by a former Pistons star, and chatted with ex-gang members operating heavy machinery on an assembly line in the city's most blighted area.
Winning his party's nomination in 2000 will be considerably easier for Gore if he can lock up the African-American vote, which accounts for as much as a quarter of the Democratic-primary total. So he is courting the party's most loyal voters at every opportunity. At a time when there is little federal money to spread around, Gore has championed the Administration's empowerment-zone program, which pours millions of dollars into depressed areas like inner Detroit. During the fall campaign, he visited black churches on Sundays with a rousing sermon that an aide described as "very un-Al Gore," and he still holds regular meetings and conference calls with African-American ministers on topics that range from education to TV violence. The Vice President's mansion has become a regular gathering place for black officials and noted scholars to discuss urban problems. Says Archer: "The Vice President will not have any problem connecting with ethnic minorities."
But he still has work to do. Black leaders have not forgotten that it was Gore, as a presidential contender in 1988, who first raised the issue of "weekend passes for convicted criminals" against Michael Dukakis, spawning the infamous Willie Horton ads that helped win the election for George Bush. Fellow candidate Jesse Jackson accused Gore operatives then of employing a subtly racist strategy against him in the South and a blatant one in New York, where Gore's leading backer, Mayor Ed Koch, said Jews would be "crazy" to vote for Jackson.
These days, Jackson says he considers Gore "a very decent man." But some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have a new grievance against Gore. Last week the caucus drafted a letter to Clinton demanding to know why former Louisiana Congressman Cleo Fields did not get a high-level appointment. Fields' backers had been led to believe he had earned one after Gore persuaded him to set aside his differences with Senate candidate Mary Landrieu and help her win the race. When Fields showed up for work in Washington on March 31, he found that the prestigious job he had expected on Gore's staff, coordinating empowerment zones, was instead a much lower post doing the same thing at Housing and Urban Development. Fields, who rejected the job, says the debacle was "a real bad experience for me."
In the end, black voters--like other voters--will judge Gore largely on the Administration's record. Clinton will soon announce what his aides describe as a historic new initiative on race relations. Its fate may well help determine Gore's.
--With reporting by James Carney/Washington
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