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The big sleep

Blacks helped Dems in '98, but may not be hyped about 2000

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African-American voters sure could use a man like Mitch Skandalakis these days.
In 1998, Skandalakis was a common enemy: a conservative white Republican who was running for lieutenant governor on a platform of opposition to affirmative action, public assistance and the city of Atlanta. His in-your-face campaign galvanized black voters.

In his unwitting drive to increase African-American voter turnout, Skandalakis was aided and abetted by two high-profile statewide black candidates, Thurbert Baker for attorney general and Michael Thurmond for labor commissioner. Baker and Thurmond, both Democrats, won; Skandalakis lost out to Democrat Mark Taylor.

In comparison, the 2000 general election looks down- right snoozy.

"What we have lacking this year is the Skandalakis factor," says State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who teaches political science at Morris Brown College. "That was a highly polarizing, energizing factor."

Black turnout -- or a lack of it -- could have a huge bearing on the election, ranging from the presidential campaign to local, state and congressional races: If blacks turn out heavily, Democrats are likely to do well; if not, Nov. 7 could be a field day for Republicans.

Fort says the last time black voters got excited was when former Sen. Bill Bradley debated Vice President Al Gore in Harlem during this year's Democratic primary season. After that, "black" issues faded from the frontlines, and interest among African-Americans faded, too. It's significant, Fort says, that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has spent $9 million of its own money to register and motivate voters this year.

"Voter interest is enough of a concern that they did not go hat-in-hand asking other organizations for money," says Fort. "They allocated their own resources to it."

Those registration efforts have borne some fruit. The Atlanta branch of the NAACP joined forces with 20 other groups and numerous churches to snag unregistered voters at MARTA stations, Grady Memorial Hospital and grocery stores throughout Atlanta, registering more than 20,000 new voters. The numbers from various other voter-awareness organizations still are coming in, but Judith Hanson, executive director of the Atlanta NAACP, says her current figures already are triple those of new voters registered for the 1998 election.

"We recognize this election will determine federal funds that will be allocated," says Hansom, referring to the significance of congressional races. "There are also redistricting issues, and this next president will be the one to appoint three or even four new Supreme Court justices."

Demographic shifts have upped the ante as well. Since Rep. Bob Barr's election in 1994, about 5,000 registered African-American voters have moved into his district. The 7th district stretches from Marietta to the Alabama state line and has been regarded as a conservative, Republican stronghold, but with the influx of black voters, Democratic challenger Roger Kahn may have a better shot than did Barr's last opponent.

But will the new voters vote?

"I honestly do not know what will happen," says Fort. "We'll have to wait and see. Turnout is everything."

That wait-and-see attitude is echoed by University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, who cautions that, despite Vice President Al Gore's apparent write-off of the state, Republicans may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Even if Texas Gov. George W. Bush widens his slim lead in the national polls, Georgia's congressional, state legislative and local races could go more Democrat than seems likely one week out from the election.

"You're not going to get a traditional Georgia Democrat campaign that really gets the voters out to the polls until the last 72 hours," says Bullock. "The black churches, the senior organizations, that's when they start building to a crescendo, and those are Democrat votes."

Clark Atlanta University political scientist William Boone agrees, but balances the possibility of a Democrat surge against black pessimism over the presidential candidates. They've failed, he says, to touch on issues that worry many blacks. Although Gore talked about racial profiling by law enforcement early in the campaign, he abandoned the issue soon after. Both candidates have addressed the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly, but neither Bush nor Gore has related the issue to African-Americans, a group that feels the brunt of legislation that affects health programs for the poor. No one in either camp has drawn the attention of the average black voter to an inevitable truth that is all the buzz among black politicos: the appointment of black Supreme Court justices. The result, he says, is apathy.

"For most people, there are no real pressing issues," says Boone. "Aside from the flare-up in the Middle East, but that was only brought home when the USS Cole was hit. For most, it's not an issue."

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