WORLD

The Jesse question

MARCI McDONALD July 4 1988
WORLD

The Jesse question

MARCI McDONALD July 4 1988

The Jesse question

UNITED STATES

The question first sent tremors through the Democratic party three months ago: what does Jesse Jackson want? Last week, less than a month before the party convention opens in Atlanta on July 18, it assumed a new urgency. As pressure mounted on the Democrats’ nominee-in-waiting, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, to offer Jackson the vice-presidential spot on the ticket, Jackson himself was under increased pressure from his black supporters to accept what would be a historic role. But with opinion polls showing that 24 per cent of respondents would be less likely to vote for Dukakis if Jackson were his running mate, Democratic officials faced a dilemma. They clearly feared that if Dukakis should offer Jackson the vicepresidential ticket, the charismatic black leader could throw the party into turmoil by accepting.

Last week, after a secretive 45-minute meeting with Dukakis in a back room of the Los Angeles Convention Centre, Jackson continued to disguise his objectives. Responding to reports that he was ambivalent about taking the job, Jackson announced that he had finally made up his mind—and then refused to divulge his decision. By keeping the party in suspense, he has increased his political leverage at the convention and presented Dukakis with a critical test of his leadership

skills. Some Jackson supporters have turned the issue of how he is treated into a test of the party’s racial and moral standing. In fact, at a conference of black mayors in Philadelphia last week, Richard Hatcher, the former mayor of Gary, Ind., argued that choosing Jackson for the number 2 spot was “more important than winning an election.”

Dukakis clearly did not agree as he carefully sidestepped the issue. On the one hand, he showed his strongest support yet for Jackson’s candidacy by acknowledging that he was giving it “very serious consideration.” But at the same time, Dukakis’s aides said privately that his short list contained six other names, including Florida Senator Robert Graham and Ohio Senator John Glenn, who are more likely contenders. Over recent weeks, the governor’s closest friend and adviser, Boston lawyer Paul Brountas, has been screening potential running mates. And after commissioning polls in key swing states, Brountas is expected to hand his recommendations to Dukakis to study over the July 1 weekend. Many of those polls confirm that a black running mate would hurt the ticket. But Jackson’s supporters dismiss those race-based conclusions. Said Representative Louis Stokes of Ohio: “In the last election, with two whites [Walter Móndale and Geraldine Ferraro] on the ticket, we lost 49 of the 50 states. You can’t do much worse than that.”

Jackson has steadily increased the

pressure on Dukakis. He has crisscrossed the country, declaring that the question “What does Jesse want?” is “full of contempt and disrespect—a question not asked any other candidate.” Added Jackson: “The real question is ‘What has Jesse built?’ ” That appeared to be an effort to remind Democratic elected officials—who will go to Atlanta as superdelegates— that many of them depend on black voters. In 1986, Democrats won key Senate seats from Republicans in Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina only because of massive support from blacks.

z One southerner, Sena| tor Fritz Hollings of | South Carolina, has dem^ onstrated his appreciation of what Jackson calls the “new political math.” Hollings announced that, despite “profound differences” with Jackson on some issues, he would support him at the convention. Referring to Jackson’s new moderate style, Hollings said: “Jesse frightened the bejesus out of everybody four years ago. This time, he hasn’t frightened anyone.” Jackson owes much of his new mainstream appeal—and his shrewd convention strategy—to an unlikely unofficial adviser: Bert Lance, the Georgia banker who orchestrated Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory and later was forced to resign as his budget director amid allegations of bank fraud (he was subsequently cleared). A fellow southerner and party outcast, Lance talks to Jackson by phone at least once a day in a relationship that the black preacher has characterized as “oppressed people helping each other up onto the road, instead of rassling with each other in the ditch.” And Lance is credited with persuading Jackson to steer his campaign away from divisive racial themes.

For that reason, many Democratic officials predict that Jackson will use his clout not to force a floor fight over the vice-presidency, but to win planks in the platform, staking out his claim as the leader of the party’s progressive wing. Said Jackson’s chief platform negotiator, Eleanor Holmes Norton: “To the members of the press who hoped for blood, you will find the floors clean.” After arousing tensions over what role he really wants to play, Jackson will likely step into the part he long ago wrote for himself—not as the party’s vice-presidential spoiler, but its healer.

MARCI McDONALD