Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Whites winnow presidential field in first-in-the-nation Iowa and New Hampshire

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By JONATHAN TILOVE

January 10, 2000
c.2000 Newhouse News Service

MANCHESTER, N.H. _ New Hampshire isn’t the whitest state in America. That would be Maine, due east, followed by Vermont, due west. But after that, it’s New Hampshire, 96.5 percent white, followed by West Virginia and then Iowa, which is 94.6 percent white.
In other words, if one wanted to find two states thoroughly unrepresentative of America’s minority populations and growing diversity, you could hardly do better than New Hampshire and Iowa _ the two states now vested by the presidential nominating system with power wildly out of proportion to their size.
It is an artifact of American democracy that undermines, in ways large and small, the ability of minorities to influence the selection of a president and to determine which issues will come to the fore. It is with perhaps fitting symbolism that the zenith of quadrennial political activity here comes just as New Hampshire this Jan. 17 for the first time joins the other 49 states in officially observing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday. It has been a long struggle that in its thwarting undermined, fairly or unfairly, the state’s reputation for racial sensitivity.
“The candidates spend an extraordinary amount of time campaigning in these two states … talking to real voters, finding out what’s on their minds,” says Northeastern University political scientist William G. Mayer, editor of a new collection of essays on the nominating process. “But there are all kinds of major problems that you will not learn about by going to Iowa and New Hampshire, and one of them is race.”
In a nation where minorities’ share of the population is close to 30 percent and climbing, it is the citizenry of these two racial-demographic throwbacks that get by far the most quality time with the candidates, taking their measure while the rest of the nation and its news media watch and wait. Before any sizable number of minority voters can cast a single ballot, white folks in New Hampshire and Iowa will have sorted the field into Big Mo, Slow Mo and No Mo.
And yet, unfair as this bleaching of the crucial early stages of the nominating process may be, it is difficult to devise an alternative arrangement that would maintain the very real virtues of grass-roots democracy that the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary embody.
“Is this truly representative? No. But it allows people to become engaged. It allows people to meet candidates four or five times. It’s what America used to be,” says Dale S. Kuehne, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester. Kuehne is standing beside a pew in the gleaming, white-steepled Bethany Covenant Church he attends in Bedford. Some 300 citizens, looking as if they just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell portrait, have just spent 90 minutes this morning firing questions at Arizona Sen. John McCain before heading to work.
“We have a choice,” Kuehne says. “We can have Iowa and New Hampshire first with retail politics, or we can have advertising and tarmac.”
Start the campaign in multicultural California, Kuehne says, and for all practical purposes it probably would end there _ with victory for the best-known and best-funded candidates. As Iowa and New Hampshire help winnow the field, they also permit credible but underdog candidates like Bill Bradley and John McCain to emerge, and in that way actually enrich the real choices the subsequent primary states are offered.
“What do you put in place of New Hampshire? Where do you go?” asks William Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, who notes that the state may be little but it has a big civic tradition.
Turnout in contested presidential primaries here ranges from 70 percent to 88 percent, he says. The Legislature has a 400-member House of Representatives _ one for every 2,750 voters _ and the state has an endless array of local offices with very short terms, Gardner says. “If you live in New Hampshire, some time in your lifetime you are either going to have held an office or have had someone in your family hold an office.”
“When I was in Chicago, nobody saw the candidates and nobody cared,” says Evelyn Aillon Beran, a recent arrival in New Hampshire who has just met Bradley’s wife Ernestine. “Back in Chicago the leaders of organizations might have known the candidates, but I’m a commoner,” says Beran, the daughter of Ecuadoran immigrants. “Here it seems like all the commoners know everybody. They talk about it all the time.”
“It’s amazing,” says Shawn Brown, a 23-year-old senior at Kent State University who has been volunteering this winter for Bradley. “Stuff like this never happens in Ohio. In Ohio it’s all television and newspapers.”
Brown, who is black and grew up in Cleveland, thinks it is unfair that New Hampshire has the power it does. But he is standing with a Bradley sign in the bright cold outside the town hall in the timeless little New England community of Newmarket, and he cannot imagine discarding this idyll of democracy.
“We just held our 46th town meeting,” Bradley bragged the day before to an audience of 200 business leaders, eating quiche at a “Politics and Eggs” luncheon at a country inn in Bedford just across the Merrimack River from Manchester. “This campaign is premised on having spent two winters in New Hampshire instead of one.”
Between March 15, 1999, and Jan. 10 of this year, Bradley spent 87 days campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to a count kept by National Journal’s Hotline. McCain, who isn’t seriously contesting Iowa, spent 51 days in New Hampshire alone.
For the Republicans the overwhelming whiteness of the electorate in these two states does little to distinguish it from the GOP faithful nationally. But, says Mayer, about a fifth of all Democrats nationally are black, and their absence here helps explain why Vice President Gore, who does especially well with black voters in national polls, isn’t doing better.
In Iowa, according to Wayne Ford, the only black legislator there, less than 2 percent of the state’s tiny black voting population turned out for the 1996 caucuses, roughly a tenth the general turnout.
As he has in the past, Ford will sponsor an Iowa Black and Brown Presidential Forum on race issues this year that Bradley and Gore will participate in on King Day in Des Moines. All the nation’s problems, Ford says, are here in microcosm. One in 12 black Iowans is in prison, on parole or probation, the highest rate outside Washington. And, as in New Hampshire, the population is changing. The first baby born this year in Des Moines was the daughter of a Mexican immigrant; the first in Dubuque was black.
The New Hampshire black caucus _ which consists of three of the state’s 400 representatives _ are all backing Gore and believe the intimacy of the New Hampshire campaign offers them the access to have their issues addressed directly.
“Our numbers here may be small, but that doesn’t mean we are not cognizant and we feel we are part of the larger picture,” says state Rep. Jackie Weatherspoon.
Weatherspoon and her two black colleagues, veteran legislator Lionel Johnson and first-termer Harvey Keye, were instrumental in finally winning approval last year for the official King holiday.
Wayne Jennings, president of the New Hampshire NAACP, says Yankee independence _ not racial animus _ explains why New Hampshire was the last state to join the King fold. Jennings, who will be hosting a King dinner this year in Manchester featuring King’s eldest daughter, Yolanda, has his own independent streak. When his original candidate for president, Dan Quayle, dropped out, he signed on with another Republican, Gary Bauer, whom he met in typical New Hampshire fashion _ running into him on the town green in New Boston where Jennings lives.
“When you look at it from the outside, New Hampshire has this image of being a real racist place,” Jennings says. “It’s just the opposite.”
Color aside, New Hampshire’s Democratic voters are a bit more liberal than the party electorate in other primary states, according to Denison University political scientist Emmet H. Buell Jr. The same may be said of Iowa, where the caucus system puts a premium on activist networks.
This campaign is unusual in the degree to which Gore and especially Bradley have incorporated race into the campaign catechism they recite to audiences of every hue.
“We’re not yet at the point in America where, as Toni Morrison says, race exists but doesn’t matter,” Bradley tells his virtually all-white audience at the business luncheon in Bedford. “Whenever I see somebody who can see beneath skin color or eye shape to the individual, I think all of us could be that good.”
It is pretty standard Bradley fare, and William Padilla, who seems to be the lone Hispanic in the audience, is touched.
“It’s like salve on a wound,” says Padilla, who says he grew up in a white suburb in New Jersey, embarrassed to let people know he was Puerto Rican. Padilla directs the Alliance for Progress of Hispanic Americans _ or ALPHA _ trying to keep Manchester’s Hispanic youths out of trouble.
That afternoon, Ernestine Bradley visits ALPHA. But this being New Hampshire, Padilla is disappointed the candidate himself does not attend. He wonders whether there are just too few Hispanic voters.
After talking to the young people at ALPHA, Ernestine Bradley can be heard lamenting to Padilla that the Spanish on the Bradley Web site reads more like translated English than idiomatic Spanish. She asks if he knows anyone who can help, noting that she already is reaching out to a friend in Mexico.
It is a small matter, but one that probably would have been dealt with by now if the Bradley campaign had spent two winters and held 46 town meetings in a state with a large Latino population.
It also suggests other things that might be different if the time spent here and in Iowa were spent somewhere that looked more like the rest of America.
Perhaps the candidates’ talk of race would be more aggressively challenged and probed. Perhaps more difficult issues like racial profiling, police brutality, drug sentences, affirmative action, bilingual education and immigration policy would be more frequently raised.
Perhaps Bradley and Gore would find themselves in a bidding war for minority support, or rethinking old positions, just as Iowans persuaded Bradley to reverse his opposition on ethanol subsidies and bone up on farm policy.
The real virtue of New Hampshire and Iowa is that they are supposed to afford opportunities for direct two-way interaction between candidate and voter. Unless there is nothing politically distinctive about being black or Latino in America, then something important is missing here and in Iowa.
What’s more, the news media (which judging by the couple of hundred reporters gathered for the recent debates at the University of New Hampshire is, collectively, about as white as the Granite State) trailing these candidates would be writing a lot more about the needs and desires of minority communities if they spent as much time in California, New Mexico or Georgia as they now spend in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Finally, says Dartmouth College political scientist Linda Fowler, there is this broader question: “Would a different kind of candidate emerge if the first primary were held in a state where blacks (or Hispanics) were politically very well organized and mobilized? The real problem here is, we don’t know.”

Written by jonathantilove

July 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm

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