Florida's Elections and the Shifting Terrain of Black Politics

Both Republicans and Democrats scramble to keep up with dynamics that blur party lines and racial expectations.

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Kendrick Meek, Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist

Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now the "independent" U.S. Senate candidate, trails the official Republican candidate, Marco Rubio, by six points, and political forecasters in the state now predict a Rubio victory. Kendrick Meek, the state's first black Democratic candidate, is given no chance at all. Every poll since Labor Day has him with no more than 25 percent support. Some Democratic Party leaders have quietly urged him to drop out of the race and throw his support to Crist, but Meek told a USA Today interviewer, "I'm comfortable playing the role of David."

From the beginning, the election has been in the national headlines. Immigration and health care have been a large target of Republican campaign advertising. "Vote to rescue America" and "the America that was is no more" are two constantly repeated Republican refrains on television, usually accompanied by images of Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi, even in races that seem distant from Washington, D.C., like state attorney general or chief financial officer. For those of us old enough to remember, such slogans hint at yearnings for the racist society that existed until the struggle for civil rights and the 1965 Voting Rights Act began redefining Southern politics and America.

But the manner in which race has been turned on its head is one of the interesting dynamics here in this Florida election season. What might be called "the skin test" may have to be thrown out the window. State Sen. Al Lawson, minority leader in the Florida Legislature and the only black Democrat representing northern Florida, has endorsed Crist -- not Meek. Lawson lost the August primary for the congressional seat held by Blue Dog Democrat Allen Boyd in large part because both the state Democratic Party and President Obama endorsed Boyd.

Their endorsements were a politically pragmatic effort to aid the seven-term conservative Congressman, who, down nearly a dozen points in the polls, now seems likely to lose his seat to his Republican opponent. Some speculation suggests that the endorsement of Boyd is the Democratic Party's way of sending a subtle message to black voters that it is OK to vote for Crist. With Meek virtually out of the running, Democratic leadership much prefers Crist over Tea Party favorite Rubio, whose victory would put a crucial U.S. Senate seat in the hands of a Republican.

In the tight race for Florida's 22nd Congressional District, which includes Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, Republican Allen West has the Tea Party and Sarah Palin in his corner. He is one of 32 African Americans running for congressional seats as Republicans this November.

The former Army lieutenant colonel was forced to retire after firing a gun near a detainee's head in Iraq to get information about a possible ambush. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he compared Obama campaign events to Nazi rallies and has accused Obama and Pelosi of Gestapo tactics. Should he win, however, West says he wants to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

Redistricting is the stealth issue in the election. It has the greatest potential consequence for Florida's black electorate and also reflects the changing face of "black" politics. Two "Fair Districts" constitutional amendments on the state ballot would prohibit state lawmakers from drawing legislative or congressional districts that favor incumbents or political parties.

The often bizarrely drawn districts have also guaranteed a black majority district that has repeatedly sent Rep. Corrine Brown to Congress since 1992; and unsurprisingly, Brown opposes the amendments. She calls them an effort to "bleach" her district, arguing that minority representation in Florida will diminish if the amendments pass.

But the state NAACP and nearly every member of Florida's Legislative Black Caucus say the amendments would give minorities more power. Redistricting in 1992 shifted Democratic voters, many of them minorities, out of other districts, resulting by 1996 in Republican control of the Legislature for the first time in nearly 120 years.

Politicians like former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Rep. Andrew Young have proved that blacks can win white votes in unexpected places, but of the 42 black Democrats in the House, all but two represent districts in which blacks are a majority or plurality. An important question raised in Florida and other Republican campaigns around the country is, With Republicans fielding more black candidates than Democrats in federal races, how relevant are the accusations of racism that have been a staple of Democratic Party campaigning?

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM