Some Democrats worry about race in campaign

Signing up new voters
Lindell Jack, left, and Chris Stinson are with the nonprofit group ACORN, which has been registering low-income, young people and minority voters this year.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

For those who don't think race will be a factor in this year's election - you only need to listen to George Ziegler, a semi-retired barber from Anoka.

"I wouldn't vote for that n----r," he said. "I wouldn't vote for him. No way in heaven's name would I give him a chance to take my vote and go in there. I'm smarter than that."

Ziegler's statement is shocking because he knew he was talking with a reporter. What worries some Democrats are those who share Ziegler's sentiment but don't talk about it.

Among the most worried are the leaders of labor unions. They represent a large number of blue collar, high school-educated workers.

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"I think race is something that has to be confronted. I think it has to be talked about more in the labor community and I think we're kidding ourselves if we don't think it's an issue," said Bernie Hesse, with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, a union which is backing Obama for president.

"Is there prejudice or some racist stuff going on? I think so."

Hesse said some of the members of his union expressed concern about voting for Obama because he's African American.

"Is there prejudice or some racist stuff going on? I think so," he said. I also think with some of the older members, it's a thing of entitlement. And they don't think of it as race but think of it as, how dare a young black person run for president? He hasn't put his time in, and why is he entitled to this? Either way you look at it, it's an obstacle to getting it done."

Hesse said he wants to see union members have a "very honest and open conversation about race" before the election.

He isn't the only one who worries about race.

At a political briefing during the Democratic National Convention in Denver, a union activist asked AFL-CIO political director Karen Ackerman how union members should address the topic.

"The Republicans have used gays, guns and abortion in past elections as an emotional issue to overcome our own self interest," the activist said. "This year, very candidly, it's going to be race. I have talked to a lot of union members who are having a difficulty just because he's black. How are we going to deal with that? Is the AFL-CIO going to deal with the issue of race? We can't let it go unsaid because a lot of members feel that way."

Bernie Hesse
Bernie Hesse with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Ackerman said racism is playing a limited role in Obama's appeal among certain union members. She said many union members have never voted for an African American candidate for any office. But she said union leaders are working to overcome the prejudice by talking pocketbook issues.

She also said they're urging local union officials to have one-on-one meetings with voters who are reluctant to vote for Obama because of his race.

"We feel that there is a racial component for some union members and that's not the only thing," she said. "We're confident that we can overcome that. The stakes in terms of where this country is going and the economic well being of workers, middle income families, is very serious and economic issues dominate."

Obama's campaign officials in Minnesota aren't focusing on race.

"We don't hear about it, and it's certainly something that we don't lead with because we don't think it's relevant to voters," said Jeff Blodgett, who is running Obama's Minnesota campaign.

Blodgett said he and other campaign officials aren't hearing about Obama's race when they talk with voters. He said they're talking about other issues like the economy.

"Our strategy here in Minnesota here is twofold," he said. "One is to excite and mobilize this huge base of voters and new voters who are very excited by this campaign. And then to go out and present the choice that undecided voters have between Barack Obama and John McCain when it comes to the economy."

"I think there is something of a racial effect - whether we call it Bradley of not - that is at the heart of this campaign," said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who studies race and politics.

The Bradley effect, he says, is when voters tell pollsters that they intend to vote for an African American candidate but do something different in the voting booth.

Walters said he isn't surprised by a poll that says a third of White Democrats and Independent voters harbors some racist views towards African Americans.

"People may have a racial motive, but they may say that Barack Obama lacks experience," he said. "So they may use any pretext not to vote for him and support him when the real reason has to do with race and not something else."

Walters said the Obama campaign shouldn't try to change the minds of voters who say they won't vote for Obama because he's black. Instead, he said the campaign should focus on turning out those who are likely to vote for Obama. That appears to be the intent of the Obama campaign and other groups.

Lindell Jack spent a recent afternoon trying to register voters outside a restaurant in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood. Jack and two others work for ACORN, a community organizing group that focuses on registering young people, people of color and low income people to vote.

Jack said black voters are more excited to register.

"Everybody is talking about 'oh yeah. I'm happy and ready to vote,' so there definitely is a greater enthusiasm coming from African Americans," he said.

Chris Stinson, the political director for ACORN, said the group's nonpartisan voter registration drive has signed up 40,000 voters this year, 12,000 more than they had hoped.

"Our goal is to increase the voices of underrepresented people to make sure that the neighborhoods that we work in and organize in are represented on Election Day," Stinson said. "But you don't have to walk around Frogtown very long to figure out that they're going to vote for Barack Obama in a big way."

Obama's campaign said it's also looking to register an additional 20,000 voters in Minneapolis and surrounding areas.

But the question is whether lower income, African American and younger voters will show up on Election Day. Those groups typically vote at lower rates than others.

Ron Walters, with the University of Maryland, said enthusiasm among Democratic voters could signal a huge turnout for Obama on election day. He said, if that happens, the large number of voters could counteract the impact of those who won't vote for Obama because he's African American.