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Obama drawing state's black voters

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / February 3, 2008

For months, Joyce Ferriabough-Bolling was the object of scorn in her own house. At the dinner table and after televised Democratic debates, her husband and 13-year-old son would criticize her for supporting Senator Hillary Clinton.

"I felt like her experience was substantial," she said. "I also felt it was her time."

But something changed about two weeks ago, when Bill Clinton went on the attack, making what some took to be racially tinged statements about Senator Barack Obama's candidacy.

"I was so angry - really, really angry," said Ferriabough-Bolling, whose husband, Bruce Bolling, was the first black president of the Boston City Council. "It was so unnecessary, and here's a guy who's a player. He knew what he was doing. It really teed me off."

Her transformation, from an ardent Clinton supporter to an equally strong Obama advocate, is part of what some see as a groundswell of support for Obama in Massachusetts' black community, which helped elect the first black governor and now wants to do the same for a national candidate.

In South Carolina last month, Obama won a landslide victory in the Democratic presidential primary, in part because of a massive amount of support from black voters who were turned off by the tactics of the Clinton campaign.

In Massachusetts, Obama supporters are hoping for a similar wave, albeit on a smaller scale: While black voters in South Carolina make up about one-fourth of the electorate, they constitute only about 5 percent in Massachusetts. At the same time, Clinton supporters are trying to stem the tide by making a late push in several predominantly minority neighborhoods in Boston.

"The black community is going to come out in record numbers," said Ron Bell, a voting rights activist who helped run Governor Deval Patrick's campaign and is now working on a big voter turnout effort in Massachusetts for Obama. "When there's an African-American candidate, it mobilizes the African-American community, just like it did for the governor."

Bell has been canvassing urban streets, talking to voters at barber shops and hair salons. He has also been leading groups of volunteers to blanket windshields with small Obama signs - a similar tactic volunteers used for Patrick's race, and one he intends to employ today as worshipers exit church services in Boston.

Clinton's campaign is also growing more visible in Boston and has several events planned tomorrow in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Mission Hill, including a visit by US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat and one of Clinton's top black surrogates nationally.

Clinton also has a key supporter in Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has pledged to put 800 people to work for her on Tuesday, including 80 drivers who will transport elderly voters to the polls.

Obama supporters say they are executing a similar strategy to the one that Patrick used to defeat Menino-backed Thomas Reilly, the former state attorney general, in the 2006 gubernatorial primary. In the general election, Patrick took 72 percent of the vote in Boston among four candidates, a higher percentage than Menino has ever received in his own city, even in 1997 when no one else's name was on the ballot.

"We're going to campaign in every ward and precinct in Boston," Menino said in an interview. "The assumption is that Obama will do well in Roxbury. The same assumption is that she'll do well in the South End, East Boston, and Hyde Park. But we won't know until Tuesday."

Both presidential campaigns had surrogates crisscrossing the state yesterday, and the candidates plan to be in Massachusetts tomorrow.

While Obama is generating buzz within the black community, political observers expect Clinton to perform better among the state's growing Hispanic community. Her national campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, is the first Latina to lead a presidential campaign, and local Hispanic officials say Clinton had already locked up a network of Hispanic supporters in Massachusetts before Obama's campaign started trying to organize that community.

"Hillary has done a very good job at reaching out," said Giovanna Negretti, executive director of Oíste, a statewide Latino political organization.

Recent polls suggest that Obama is trailing in Massachusetts, anywhere from 6 points to 24 points. Still, he has raised more money here than Clinton - $3.8 million to $2.8 million - and voters say they have been swayed by Obama's strong showing in South Carolina and the endorsement of Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

"I see a person who has had to overcome obstacles like I've had to overcome," said Dr. Julius Wayne Dudley, a 63-year-old professor at Salem State who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta in the 1960s. "There's a certain amount of pride seeing a well-educated African-American running for public office."

On Thursday night, about 75 Obama supporters gathered inside Morse Auditorium at Boston University, using cellphones to call registered voters and read from a script to persuade residents to vote for him.

"It is an uphill climb, and it will work and succeed only if you make it personal," Patrick said. "Tell friends, co-workers, family."

But communities of color will not be voting in lockstep.

Andrea Cabral, who became Suffolk County's first black sheriff in 2005, publicly endorsed Clinton last year shortly after the New York senator announced her candidacy, and Representative Marie St. Fleur, a Democrat from Dorchester and first Haitian elected to the Legislature, recently did the same.

"Black people's votes can be multidimensional, and you won't see a replication of South Carolina," Cabral said. "Massachusetts has a long history with the Clintons, and you'd be hard pressed to see that tie greatly diminished or weakened as a result of this campaign."

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, a group that trains community activists, had planned to vote for former South Carolina senator John Edwards before he dropped out this week. Now, he's torn between the question of electability - whether Clinton's experience trumps Obama's inspiration, as well as how each candidate would fare in the general election.

"People are engaged, man, unlike any time I've ever seen it," he said. "I've never seen this much visible excitement about presidential campaigns. It's mad crazy. Everybody's talking about it. There's going to be a serious turnout on Tuesday."

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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