Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
As Sen. Barack Obama gets set to campaign for president in Houston, local political leaders and voters reflect the national surveys showing that he has no early lock on the black vote, which could play a key role in next year’s Texas Democratic primary.
Linzy Hughes, 94, one of several black voters interviewed at lunch Tuesday at the Family Cafe, a political crossroads near downtown Houston, said America is not ready for a black president and he will support Hillary Clinton, if he “make(s) 95,” simply because he thinks she has a better chance of winning.
On the other hand, Obama’s relative youth and outlook appeal to Carroll Robinson, a former Houston councilman and associate dean of external affairs at Texas Southern University.
Robinson, who is 45, the same age as the presidential contender, said he did not experience the John F. Kennedy “phenomenon” firsthand, but he likened the enthusiasm for the late president to the way younger voters feel now about Obama.
“He engenders the belief that America can be better,” said Robinson. “Obama has helped broaden the prism and the conversation. We need someone who the electorate will give a mandate from the center.”
Obama, in his first term as a senator from Illinois, has enlivened this preliminary phase of the presidential contest as a charismatic candidate with bi-racial roots and a message of optimism.
On Thursday, a select group of Houstonians will have a chance to get better acquainted with Obama at a $2,300-a-person campaign fundraiser at the Museum District residence of energy executive Robert Cavnar and his wife, Gracie.
Later that evening Obama is scheduled to drop by a less-expensive fundraising event for younger voters at the Communications Workers of America hall downtown.
On Friday, Obama is scheduled to speak at the University of Texas at Austin at an afternoon event open to the public.
‘A wise young man’
In speeches, Obama mentions his commitment to civil rights. But his talks are more centered on issues such as his opposition to the war in Iraq and overcoming cynicism in politics.
His approach appeals to Faye Lewis, 57, who paused to chat at the Family Cafe.
“He’s a wise young man. … I think he can cross racial (voting) lines,” she said.
However, some Texas observers said there is also tentativeness among black voters, who worry about his experience and ability to get elected.
“A lot of folks don’t know who he is,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas chapter of the NAACP.
Black voters in Texas could be influential in determining the outcome of next year’s Democratic presidential primary, particularly if the Legislature moves up the primary election date a month, to Feb. 5.
Black voters made up about 40 percent of the primary electorate in the last highly competitive Democratic primary in the state in 2002, said Bob Stein, professor of political science at Rice University.
Trails former first lady
But while Obama has been drawing large enthusiastic crowds since he announced his presidential intentions this month, polls show he trails Clinton among Democratic primary voters.Furthermore, in a recent ABC/Washington Post poll Clinton was garnering the support of 60 percent of black voters, three times the support for Obama.
David Bositis, a scholar who has studied black voting trends at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said many older blacks, particularly in the South, have seen little evidence that black candidates can win on the state or national level.
“African-American voters look at (Obama) and say, ‘Hmm, I don’t think so,’ “ Bositis said.
“I’m an old-timer. I came along at a different time,” said Hughes, one of the diners at Houston’s Family Cafe. “I came of age when things were segregated. Blacks and whites didn’t associate. That’s instilled in me — maybe young people can grow out of that.”
Some black diners indicated that they are much more sophisticated about politics than some assume and no candidate has yet to corral their vote.
“I don’t believe Hillary will command the African-American vote. Nor will the senator (Obama) automatically get it because of the pigmentation of his skin,” said Don Anthony Woods. “The days of predicting how African-Americans will vote are over.”