The presidential race marked an awakening of political activism within the state's black community
The presidential race marked an awakening of political activism within the state's black community
Irene Secada

The Untold Story

Lost amid the hullabaloo over Florida's presidential recount is this profound fact: The only reason Al Gore is within a few hundred ballots of George W. Bush is the historic turnout among Florida's black voters.

According to election analysts, blacks cast between fifteen and sixteen percent of all votes in the state, a 50 percent increase from 1996, when their votes represented just 10 percent of the statewide total. And this year a staggering 93 percent of the black vote across the state went to Gore, a higher percentage than Bill Clinton received in either 1992 or 1996.

The raw numbers are even more impressive. In 1996 approximately 500,000 blacks voted in the state. This year the number was more than 900,000.

This tremendous showing was the result of a well-organized, well-funded effort to register black voters over the past nine months. Spurred by Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative, which rescinded several affirmative-action programs across the state, leaders in the black community mobilized in ways that haven't been seen since the civil rights movement of the Sixties.

"This was a wake-up call," says congresswoman Carrie Meek. "We really galvanized the black community. We knew what the result would be if we didn't have a massive turnout: The clock would be turned back."

Starting with a sit-in in the governor's office last February by state Reps. Kendrick Meek and Tony Hill, and followed a few weeks later with a march on Tallahassee, the mantra in the black community has been a promise to "Remember in November." Organizations including the NAACP, the People for the American Way, and various labor unions and church groups pooled their resources to set up voter-registration drives throughout the state. "It was an all-out effort to get voters registered, and it was an all-out effort to turn them out for the election," says Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat.

One of the tactics developed by Kendrick Meek and others was a project known as "Arrive with Five," which was actually a variation on a very effective voter-registration endeavor started in Chicago years ago by former Mayor Harold Washington. The late mayor's scheme was known as "Alive with Five," a reference to his belief that he would survive politically only if each of his supporters showed up at the polls with five friends.

Here in Florida more than 200,000 "Arrive with Five" pledge cards were distributed from Tallahassee to Miami. One of the key groups targeted was young voters, particularly those on college campuses. Efforts also were made to register Haitian Americans.

Another tactic was so-called early voting. Under changes in the Florida election law passed in 1998, an individual could show up in person at a county elections office the week before the vote and cast an absentee ballot. This was designed for people who knew they might not be able to make it to their regular polling station on election day. In Miami-Dade County the black community seized on this provision and organized busloads of people who traveled downtown to county hall days before the November 7 election. Radio stations, including WEDR and WMBM, encouraged their listeners to descend on county hall to vote early.

This prompted a clash between Kendrick Meek and Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor David Leahy, who claimed his department wasn't prepared to handle the thousands of people who were lining up to vote in the lobby of county hall. Meek was angered because Leahy assigned only two clerks and two computer terminals to the task. "It was a mess," Meek recalls. "They were trying to discourage people from voting. David Leahy has the kind of style that seems a bit outdated. The laws are not set up for the convenience of the supervisor of elections. The laws are set up for the convenience of the public."

Money was also important. An anonymous donor gave ten million dollars to the national organization of the NAACP to help with voter turnout, according to Adora Obi Nweze, a member of the NAACP's national board of directors and president of the group's Florida chapter. At least one million dollars of that gift made its way to Florida, Obi Nweze says. Unions and other groups also provided much-needed financial assistance. "With that money we had the resources to run ads, organize phone banks, spend the money we needed to get out the vote," she explains. "Statewide I think its impact was significant."

Not only did the large number of black voters help Gore, locally it assured Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's re-election. She received more than 93 percent of the black vote. Without such overwhelming support, she would have had a much closer race against challenger Alberto Milian.

Around the state black turnout proved decisive in helping to elect Democrat Bill Nelson to the U.S. Senate; he won by less than 300,000 votes over Republican Bill McCollum. The strong black vote was also essential for Corrine Brown to keep her congressional seat. The Jacksonville Democrat was plagued -- rightly so -- by allegations of ethical misconduct stemming from her association with West African con-man-turned-millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko.

And black turnout almost made the difference in Orlando, where Democrat Linda Chapin nearly seized an open congressional seat from Republican challenger Ric Keller. Chapin lost by less than 4000 votes.

This year's election also proved to be a day of reckoning for those in the black community who endorsed Jeb Bush in 1998. State Rep. Willie Logan of Opa-locka, state Rep. Rudy Bradley of St. Petersburg, and state Sen. Jim Hargrett of Tampa all suffered defeats. Logan tried running for the U.S. Senate as an independent, and although he was allowed to participate in statewide televised debates with his two main challengers -- Nelson and McCollum -- Logan received a paltry one percent of the statewide vote. "You have to work real hard to only get one percent of the vote," Tony Hill says derisively.

Bradley and Hargrett didn't fare much better. Bradley, who switched parties and became a Republican, lost his bid for an open state senate seat; Hargrett failed to make it past the Democratic primary for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission. In both races Bradley and Hargrett's endorsement of Bush helped galvanize black voters to oppose them. "That will not happen again," Hill says, referring to the phenomenon of prominent black legislators endorsing Jeb Bush. "You can't say one thing in Tallahassee and then go home and think people won't remember."

The question now for black political leaders is whether this level of participation can be maintained in future elections. Not surprisingly they answer affirmatively. "This is going to carry over," says Rev. Victor Curry, president of the Miami chapter of the NAACP. "This is going to carry over to the mayoral election in the City of Miami next year, and it is going to keep on carrying over into the governor's race in 2002."

Adds Carrie Meek: "In my opinion Jeb Bush is through. He's finished."

Indeed the results of this presidential election would appear to set up a dramatic battle in two years for the governor's mansion. It is a battle that already may be engaged. The early favorite among Democrats to challenge Bush is Attorney General Bob Butterworth. As chairman of Gore's presidential campaign in Florida, Butterworth has proven himself to be a loyal Democrat. But just as important, in his role as attorney general he has been reasonable and even-handed in his approach to the ballot recounts. There has been no vitriol from Butterworth. On one of the most contentious issues of the past two weeks -- the debate over military ballots that arrived without postmarks -- he issued an attorney general's opinion arguing that those ballots should not be discarded and instead should count toward the final election tally. "I think Bob has been groomed for this," Curry says of Butterworth's gubernatorial potential.

Another name already being discussed is Bob Graham, the former governor and current U.S. senator. In 1998 Graham was pressured to give up his senate seat and run against Jeb Bush. Graham considered it but in the end ran for re-election to the senate. This time the calls for him to run may be even louder.

Graham and Butterworth would do well to make their intentions clear sooner than later, as an open field would likely produce a Democratic free-for-all. Among those who might be willing to take a crack at Jeb would be congressmen Robert Wexler of Palm Beach and Peter Deutsch of Pembroke Pines. "It's going to be interesting to watch," says Obi Nweze.

In addition to continuing their voter-registration efforts, Kendrick Meek and others add that the next step will be teaching blacks how to assert their rights on election day. With so many tales of black voters being turned away at the polls -- Haitians especially -- informing people of their voting rights will be essential in the next election. "This community has gotten a shot in the arm," he reports. "They are ready to go more than ever."


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