Obama bounce makes black vote receptive to Democratic challengers

Wed, Oct 22, 2008, 01:00

African Americans are energised to vote as never before, writes Lyndsey Laytonin Fayetteville, North Carolina

DANIEL MILLER weaved through the pews at Lewis Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, past the ladies in their Sunday hats, and headed for the only white face in the crowd.

It belonged to Larry Kissell, a Democratic candidate for Congress, and Miller was eager to tell him why, at 49, he is quietly panicked. He showed up for work one day at Alandale Knitting to find the factory doors locked. He got a job mixing mud at a tile factory, but it relocated to Mexico. He moved 100 miles to work in a meatpacking plant but injured his back lifting an 80-pound vat of scraps. "The jobs are just disappearing overnight," Miller said. "Something's got to change."

That's why he's voting for Barack Obama, and why he'll scroll down the ballot to mark Kissell's name, too.

It was Kissell's fourth trip to the church, and he prays that African Americans turning out in unprecedented numbers for Obama will push him across the finish line as well. Kissell is one of at least 10 white Democrats in highly competitive US House of Representative races counting on a surge of black voters to carry them into office. Most are challenging incumbent Republicans, and they are central to Democratic hopes of picking up as many as 25 additional seats.

Many of these races are in southern states where African Americans make up a sizeable minority. But the dynamic is also at play in such states as Maryland, Ohio and Connecticut.

As many as 70 per cent of voting-age African Americans could cast ballots on election day, said David Bositis of the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies. That number would far exceed the 56 per cent who voted in 2004 and break the record for black participation set in 1968.

There is a certain irony in the pivotal role that blacks could play in congressional elections, given how some of the districts were drawn, Bositis said. "When these districts were designed, certain assumptions were made about what black turnout would be so that the district would pretty much favour Republicans.

"Now, all of a sudden, you have an election . . . where African Americans are enormously excited and mobilised. Not only that, you have the Obama campaign going out of its way to make sure these voters are registered and are going to turn out." A hint of how Obama might affect congressional races came during a special election in Mississippi this spring. In the contest to fill a vacancy in the 1st Congressional District, Republicans tried to link Democrat Travis Childers, who is white, to Obama, as a way to turn off white voters in the conservative district.

Instead, black turnout doubled in the two counties with the largest African American populations, and Childers won.

Hundreds of miles north, black voters are playing a decisive role in Connecticut's 4th Congressional District, home to the manicured estates of Greenwich and Darien. Republican incumbent Christopher Shays is fighting a vigorous challenge by Democrat Jim Himes, an investment banker turned social entrepreneur.

The battle for control of the wealthiest district in the wealthiest state in the country is being fought in the gritty streets of Bridgeport, where most of the district's African Americans live.

"Bridgeport is key to this whole election," said Gary Rose, who chairs the department of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

"It's kind of wild what's going on here. We're dealing with the very impoverished part of the district, and that's where the energy seems to be."

The importance of the black vote is so great, even though it represents just 11 per cent of the district, that Shays is running ads directly aimed at Bridgeport that feature African American residents testifying about his effectiveness in Congress.

Kissell is challenging incumbent Republican Robin Hayes, who has represented the district for 10 years. In 2006, with little name recognition, poor funding and virtually no support from the national party, Kissell came within 329 votes of toppling the Republican. But it was an odd year for North Carolina politics - there was no race for president, US senator or even governor to draw people to the polls.

Just 25 per cent of voting-age adults cast ballots, leaving both sides to wonder how the dynamics will change in a presidential election year that also includes high-profile races for governor and US Senate.

Linda Ingram (49), who met Kissell this month when he knocked on her door in the working-class hamlet of Hope Mills, didn't vote in 2006 but is headed to the polls this year.

"I was just thinking about the need to vote Democratic down the line," said Ingram, who is black and voting for Obama. She saw a vote for Kissell as another way to support Obama, "because the president is going to need help in Congress to push his agenda".

Kissell (57) is a former textile plant manager who became a high school civics teacher seven years ago. Hayes (63) is an heir to the Cannon Mills textile fortune. With a personal wealth of nearly $79 million, he was ranked fifth-richest member of Congress by Roll Call.

In an election year in which the economy is the top issue and in a district that has lost some 60,000 jobs in the past decade, Kissell's pitch is heavy on populism.

At Fuller's Old Fashion BBQ in Fayetteville on a recent Sunday, Kissell mingled with an exclusively black after-church crowd. "Hi, I'm Larry Kissell, I'm a 27-year textile worker; I came out of the mills and became a teacher," he said, bending his tall frame over one table of women. "I'm running for Congress because I just couldn't take it any more."