There’s a point in a campaign that’s behind in the polls when desperation sets in. That’s the time when trailing candidates try to throw the haymaker punch hoping for a knockout blow on the frontrunner. We are not at that point in this campaign season, but it’s getting close. It’s no surprise that part of Barack Obama’s South Carolina primary strategy aims at black church-going voters. The church is the most organized part of the black community and churchgoers are reliable voters. In addition, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s hiring of local high-priced preacher-politician-businessman Darrell Jackson and her husband Bill’s clout with blacks puts additional pressure on Obama. The Illinois senator has to cut into Clinton’s black support as well as establishing his own African American base.
If Obama doesn’t win South Carolina with its large African American voter base the race may be over for him. His poll numbers in South Carolina have been up and down. Right now Clinton appears to have the overall lead in the state as well as with black voters. Clinton also has the edge with black women who regularly vote at a higher rate than black men.
Oddly, Obama threw a premature haymaker but it wasn’t aimed at Clinton. The target was the GLBT community. Obama’s wild swing involved having four abrasively anti-gay gospel singers represent his campaign on his “Embrace the Courage” gospel music tour in South Carolina. The gay-bashing headliners included Reverends Donnie McClurkin and Hezekiah Walker, Pentecostal pastor of Brooklyn mega-church, the Love Fellowship Tabernacle and Mary Mary (a sister act duo).
The Mary Mary sisters compare gays to murderers and prostitutes. In an interview with Vibe magazine, one of the singers said, “They [Gays] have issues and need somebody to encourage them like everybody else – just like the murderer, just like the one full of pride, just like the prostitute.”
McClurkin’s previous political involvement for George Bush included a performance at the Republican National Convention in 2004. Now he’s singing for Obama. And, while stumping for the candidate McClurkin didn’t just “get on stage, sing, and shut up” as some in the Obama campaign hoped he would do. He sermonized; “God delivered me from homosexuality” as though one could simply “pray the gay away.” The predominately black crowd inside the Township Auditorium in Columbia clapped their approval of McClurkin’s message. Meanwhile a small, predominately white group of gay rights supporters picketed outside the venue.
Obama justifies his embrace of the evangelicals saying he’s “reaching out to people he doesn’t agree with.” Responding to a controversy he should have or did anticipated – Obama mentioned the black community’s “problem with homophobia.” Yet after the tour when asked why the campaign would seemingly reject gay voters for far-right leaning blacks a campaign insider replied, “We got what we needed to get out of it.”
Maybe Obama hoped the McClurkin alliance would introduce him to McClurkin’s black and white Southern evangelical base. Or, that courting evangelicals will work for him as it did for Bush. Maybe his “40 Days of Faith and Family” South Carolina campaign theme and his early radio buys on gospel radio in the state are not just nuanced campaigning to a particular constituency group. Maybe, the evangelical niche is all he hopes to get.
Obama with his $59 million campaign chest will do far better than Al Sharpton in 2004. That year blacks made up of 60 per cent of the 289,856 2004 democratic primary participants yet Sharpton garnered less than 10 per cent of the vote. Winning as big as Jesse Jackson did twenty years ago when South Carolina Democrats held a caucus may be hard to match. Jackson won 64 percent of the delegates with less than $100,000. But Jackson had a broad coalition of blacks, churchgoers, progressive whites, labor and others. Obama has done little to reach out to progressives inside and outside of the Democratic Party. His latest rejection of gay and gay-friendly voters in South Carolina carries risk since 230,674 citizens voted against the gay marriage ban in 2004. The risk is that they will mobilize against him.
To Obama’s credit to allay criticisms over his gospel tour he said, “I would make ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) a priority.” ENDA is a proposed federal law that would prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill provides employment protections similar to those of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (also known as “Title VII”), but specifically directed to gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Protection for transgender persons was excluded from the version of the bill which passed the House. Obama went on to say, “We can mobilize people for that (ENDA) and I think a majority of Americans can be mobilized to support hate crimes legislation. I think a majority of people will say, ‘You cannot perpetuate violence on people.’ I think we can have a strong conversation across this country. We can make sure that we have full civil unions that provide full benefits and if we can provide these things we can get that legislation in my first term. I think the country is ready.”
America may one day elect a woman or black as president. As to whether or not Obama or Clinton can break into the white men’s club is not a short answer question. In the meantime, the most important questions for us revolve around what will a candidate do or say to win office. Are they consistent in their message and actions? Do they pander from group to group? Do they pit one group of people against another group? At this point the answers for Obama appear to be no, yes and yes. Hopefully, in the days before the primary vote we can get better answers or at the very least, a bit of consistency as opposed to acts of desperations.
Kevin Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and regular CounterPunch contributor. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org