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Kerry's problem with black voters

GREENVILLE, S.C.

JOHN KERRY marched into South Carolina showing how he could connect with the "brothers." He scored the biggest black male endorsement in the state with the backing of US Representative Jim Clyburn. His primary television spot featured one of his African-American and Vietnam buddies from South Carolina, David Alston. Alston, now a minister, said, "When the bullets began to hit the side of the boat -- the boom, the pow, pow, pow -- we found out John Kerry can lead."

 

The "sisters" want to see more than wartime macho and political muscle. Many African-American women were among about 200 people who watched last week's Democratic presidential candidate debate on wide screen televisions at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Community Center. The community center was within walking distance of the actual debate in spiffy, refurbished downtown Greenville. But within just the 15-minute walk from the hotels and the performing arts center, neglect, decay, and abandonment in the black community were evident.

As aromatic soul food buffet wafted in the air, the women were looking for a candidate who could metaphorically rise out of the performing arts center and connect to that decay and to the struggles of mothers, seniors, and children. As the debate wore on, a group of African-American women from the Greenville area said Kerry was a long way from convincing them he had enough soul to trust him.

"He didn't have the extra push a front-runner should have," said Jessie Wofford, 64, a retired health insurance benefits analyst.

"I was a little disappointed. He didn't have the fire or desire," said Markylena Tolbert-Miller, 44, election commissioner for Greenville County.

"He has to open himself up more," said Elizabeth Brock, 53,, a housewife.

"Too Washington, too D.C.," said the Rev. Carrie Manigault-Tillman, a grandmother. "I just don't see him as a hands-on person. Too stiff."

"Kerry wasn't coming across like he should have, he should have been more direct," said the Rev. Annie Blackmon. "Our problem is jobs. He needs to respond to the problem. He really wasn't tuned in."

South Carolina told Kerry how much more he needs to tune in by rejecting him in favor of neighboring Senator John Edwards. While Kerry won Missouri and several other states last night, the women above told of struggles that, in their minds, Kerry has not yet touched. Wofford, a breast cancer survivor, was laid off from her $16-an-hour job when the firm cut jobs. Despite her retirement pay, she now works 18 hours a week for $8.50 an hour at a firm that tests employee urine samples.

Tolbert-Miller's mother is 76 and suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, a hernia, and heart problems, but she is forced to work for $7 an hour at K Mart to afford her medicines, which cost $400 a month. Her Social Security pays only $500 a month. "That's not counting her hospital visits," Tolbert-Miller said.

Tolbert-Miller is also a counselor who helps low-income cancer patients obtain expensive medicines, and she says the K Marts and Wal-Marts have many employees like her mother. "Just today, I helped a woman with cancer who has insurance, but she had to pay half of $1,300 for medicine," Tolbert-Miller said. "She only makes $400 a month. She really needs to take time off and rest with her treatments, but she has to work to keep the insurance. What we're doing to our seniors is terrible."

To these women, the debate was won by Al Sharpton. Most of these women said they were not voting for Sharpton because their priority was to get President Bush out of office. Sharpton only won a small amount of the vote in South Carolina. Wofford, who was leaning toward Kerry because of his New Hampshire victory speech, said, "Sharpton answered questions forthright. He keeps the issues right in your face. I admire him for that. The other guys do not do as good a job at that."

Tolbert-Miller, who has to stay neutral as elections commissioner, said Kerry was among her favorite candidates. But she and the other women were peeved at Kerry for what they perceive as a top-down strategy of winning black voters with the endorsement of Clyburn and Vietnam vets. That afternoon, Allen Temple was packed with 800 people for a candidates' open house. Only Sharpton and Edwards made time to show up.

"We all respect Clyburn a lot," Tolbert-Miller said. "But if Kerry wants to get people truly excited, he has to be seen shaking hands with the people who are dealing with everyday problems. It's not enough just to say you've got black friends. You've got to show you're going to be our friend, too."

The minister of Allen Temple, Caesar Richburg, agreed, even though he too, was leaning toward Kerry for his perceived electability. "He needs to let go of the formal air," Richburg said after the debate. "He's got to communicate compassion. That did not happen tonight."

Derrick Z. Jackson's

e-mail address is

jackson@globe.com.

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