Analysis:Black Primaries: Israel 2 Arabs 0

By JAMES CHAPIN, UPI Political Analyst  |  Sept. 17, 2002 at 4:29 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- The sound defeats of two five-term House incumbents -- 60-year old Congressman Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) by a 34-year-old challenger, Artur Davis, in an Alabama Democratic primary on June 25 and of 47-year old Representative Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) by 46-year old former judge Denise Majette Tuesday --attracted national attention largely because of the issue of the Middle East.

Hilliard and McKinney both blamed "Jewish money" for their defeats.

McKinney's father, State Representative Billy McKinney, who in 1996 called

the congresswoman's Republican challenger "a racist Jew," blamed his

daughter's problems on "J-E-W-S." Hilliard said, "I see a future with a

great deal of conflict between African Americans and Jews in this

country . ... It's going to get worse before it gets better. I don't think

African Americans are going to sit back and let this continue. There will be


It is certainly true that both challengers outraised the incumbents, a rare

event in congressional primaries, and that national money from Jews (and

from Arabs) poured into these races. Not too many incumbents have to face

primary challengers with more than a million dollars in campaign funds.

But, as Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local," and it is worthwhile

remembering that multi-term incumbents lose primaries for local reasons, not

national ones.

Both Hilliard and McKinney were undistinguished congressmen, in different

ways, and already in trouble in their own districts. Indeed, their outlying

positions on Israel were as much a reflection of their political problems as

a cause of them.

Hilliard in Alabama had ethics problems, which were exacerbated by the

reapportionment of his district (reducing the African-American voting age

population from 70 percent to 62 percent) and the collapse of the

organization which was his base, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition,

formerly the dominant wing of the Birmingham Democratic Party.

McKinney in Georgia had long since aroused the hostility of the local elites, most notably the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and by going over the top in her comments after 9-11, made herself the first congressional victim of those events. In a state which allows voters to choose either primary, many thousand Republicans "crossed-over" to vote her out.

All the focus on the Middle East should not allow us to ignore the continuing generational and political changes in the black community, as well as the successful intervention of business forces in these races.

Let's start with the Middle East. In December last year, Hilliard and

McKinney were among 11 members of Congress to vote against a

congressional resolution "expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight

against terrorism." In May, Hilliard and McKinney were among 21 members of

Congress to vote against a pro-Israel resolution that blamed the conflict on

the Palestinians.

Davis had raised only $100,000 by March, but, after his appearance at an

AIPAC conference in Washington in April, his contributions surged. In the

last month, Jews poured money into Davis' cause, while Hilliard received

hundreds of thousands of dollars from Arab-American and Muslim donors. In the

end, Hilliard lost the fund-raising race by $100,000, as Davis ended with

more than a million dollars.

The extra money on both sides was mostly spent on TV, and that helped bring

a huge surge in turnout. While in 2000 Hilliard beat Davis in a 3-way race

which brought 58,000 voters out, this time, in another 3-way race, there were

more than 100,000 votes cast in the first primary, and more than 90,000 in

the runoff. In 2000, Hilliard won 32,249 to 20,973, but in the first primary

this year both candidates broke 40,000 votes, with Hilliard leading by 2,700,

but Davis soundly trounced Hilliard in the run-off.

Until after Hilliard's defeat, Majette had not done much out-of-state

fundraising, but after it, her contributions, too, surged. She ended with $1.1 million, more than half of that in the past six weeks and much of it coming from out-of-state Jewish donors. McKinney raised $640,000, more than half of from donors with Arabic names who lived outside the state.

Once again, with TV blitzes on both sides, turnout jumped, reaching 45% of

the voters in the district. McKinney's 49,000 votes would have won for her

in any other year, but Majette pulled in more than 68,000.

What aroused Jewish (and Arab) contributors to intervene in these races?

For both incumbents, the recent House votes capped a long period of support

for Arab states. It's clear, however, that the outbreak of the second

Intifada in 2000 and the events of 9-11 changed the context of the foreign

policy issues.

Hilliard had traveled to Libya in 1997 and last November, just two months

after the 9-11, he introduced a bill to drop sanctions against rogue nations.

He defended his visit thus: "Libya is an African nation. It carries no

negative connotation in my community."

McKinney's relationship with the Arab-American community goes back years. In

1991, as a member of the Georgia House, McKinney criticized President Bush

for attacking Iraq, and two-thirds of her colleagues angrily walked out on

her speech. In 1994, when the House considered a resolution condemning the

incendiary speech of Nation of Islam representative Khalid Muhammad, she was

one of the few to oppose the resolution.

Last October, after New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani returned a $10 million

gift to the city from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal after the prince

suggested that U.S.-Middle East policy was partly to blame for 9-11, McKinney

publicly apologized to the prince, asking that he donate the money to black charities.

In an April radio interview, McKinney called for an investigation into whether President Bush might have had prior knowledge of the

September 11 attacks but stayed silent so that his friends in the defense

industry would profit from the ensuing war.

It was that statement, more than anything else, that provoked so many

Republicans to cross over to vote against her.

But it wasn't just contributions that affected these elections. Hilliard's

defeat was just the latest in a string of losses by the Jefferson County

Citizen's Coalition, coming after the retirement of its leader, Mayor

Richard Arrington of Birmingham.

Arrington's hand-picked successor as interim Mayor, Birmingham City Council

president William Bell, lost the 1999 mayoral race to Bernard Kincaid,

despite outspending him three-to-one. All the City Council members endorsed

by the coalition lost their seats in October 2001, and County Commissioner

Jeff Germany lost his seat to Larry Langford in this year's primary. The

rival group to the coalition, The Jefferson County Progressive Democratic

Council -- Mayor Kincaid's group -- backed Davis over Hilliard.

The 12-county 7th District, joining Birmingham with the rural Black Belt, has a 62 percent black population. In the first primary, Davis led in the two

most populous cities in the district, Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, while

Hilliard ran ahead in rural counties such as Choctaw, Dallas and Perry. In

the runoff, Davis won eight counties, including Dallas County, where turnout

was strong and Hilliard had won June 4.

After a 3 1⁄2-year investigation, Hilliard was rebuked last year by the Ethics Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives for misusing campaign funds -- buying personal items and spending campaign money on family and friends.

Davis focused primarily on what he said was Hilliard's failure to help

improve the area's schools, hospitals and economy, arguing that he could get

more things done in Congress, and that Hilliard was an embarrassment to the


Although Hilliard campaigned in the last week with the Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, more than a dozen black congressmen and Rev. Walter

Fauntroy, founder of the black caucus, who asserted that "They are turning

the clock back to a time when people outside of the African American

community chose our leaders," that argument didn't carry very far.

In the end, Hilliard's competence and his reputation was the key issue.

With numerous differences, that's what happened to McKinney too. She, too,

brought in numerous outside political supporters, including visits from the

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and the ubiquitous Sharpton -- and radio

ads from Magic Johnson and Ralph Nader.

She received checks from the campaign accounts of 14 other House members, and (Jewish) Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost of Texas gave her $5,000

from his leadership PAC. Against this Majette got only a $1,000 check from

crypto-Republican Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who had initially appointed her

to the bench and a $1,000 contribution from Henry "Hank" Aaron.

But there were numerous danger signs -- many important black Atlantans,

including Julian Bond, the chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., and former Mayors

Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, who had previously supported McKinney were

nowhere to be seen.

And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution which had been ruthless to Hilliard

("Hilliard is a loose cannon, a dimwit, and perhaps a crook, to boot") had

long violently opposed McKinney.

Here's what Cynthia Tucker had to say about

her Congressmember: "Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has to work hard to outdo herself these days, but somehow she manages. Each rant, each spectacle, each outburst is more bizarre than the last. ... All in all, McKinney, like Hilliard, has shown herself to be a fringe lunatic, well outside the congressional mainstream and incapable of aiding any cause, whether an independent Palestine or her own congressional district."

Majette's campaign said "Regardless of who comes to town, the voters of the

Fourth District want to talk about better jobs, lower taxes, better schools

and affordable health care." Majette campaigned as a "challenger with

competence," arguing, like Davis, that the incumbent's fringe politics hurt

her district.

After the fact, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tx.), the chairwoman

of the Congressional Black Caucus, complained that "To have non-African- Americans from around the country putting millions into a race to

unseat one of our leaders for expressing her right of free speech is

definitely a problem," but this is a problem only if one thinks that black

politics is somehow separate from the rest of America.

In fact, these elections reflect a change in the politics of the black

community identified earlier this summer by The Joint Center for Political

and Economic Studies, in its Divergent Generations Project.

In a recent poll, the Center surveyed 800 Black elected officials, and

reported the generational differences as follows: "The views of younger BEOs are shaped by different experiences than their older counterparts. "Many of them were born after the civil rights movement and less than half of the younger BEOs surveyed were members of civil rights organizations. In addition, they were less likely to have attended historically black colleges or segregated high schools."

"In the poll, younger BEOs also expressed greater dissatisfaction with their local public schools, were more supportive of school vouchers, and tended to be more pro-business," the report said.

Certainly Davis and Majette both reflect this profile. In effect, they are

DLC Democrats. Overlooked in the furor over the Middle East was the

intervention of business in these races.

After Hilliard's defeat, leaders of BIPAC, the top business lobby, held a

press conference claiming credit for backing Davis, who is pro "free trade,"

and suggesting that this victory would pave the way for more business PAC

involvement in Democratic congressional primaries, which PACs have

traditionally avoided for fear of picking a losing candidate.

Majette was well to the right of McKinney and probably of her district on

such questions as the permanent repeal of the estate tax (for), and

prescription drugs (she's for the Republican plan). Her biggest local

financial backer was the non-union Atlanta-based Home Depot. It's probably

true that much of her conservative position-taking was designed to get

Republican crossover votes, and it will be interesting to see what she does

in Congress.

In these races, substantial parts of the black community (although possibly

not a majority in either district) joined near-unanimous white voters to

push out incumbents who argued "black solidarity" in favor of challengers

who argued for participation in a wider Democratic party now dominated by


The effect of 9-11 was not only to increase black support for Israel, but

also to reduce the power of racial separatism as an ideology.

As a final point, it is worth noting that the New York Times, in listing

"rising black figures ... who are pressing centrist views," adds

Representative Harold Ford, Jr. and Senatorial candidate Ron Kirk of Texas

to Majette and Davis. Majette graduated Yale and Duke Law School; Davis

graduated Harvard and Harvard Law School; Ford graduated the University of

Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Law School; Kirk, the odd man

out, graduated Austin College and the University of Texas Law School.

This is almost a list of schools which conservatives, and many Jews, have

attacked for their "affirmative action" policies. It's possible that

politically active Jews may want to reconsider their opposition to

affirmative action, because it appears that members of the new black

educational/political elite are far more likely to be sensitive to Jewish

opinion than were their racially isolated predecessors.

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