BY ANTHONY MAN
SUN SENTINEL / TNS
FORT LAUDERDALE – When the Democratic presidential campaign hits Florida in full force, no constituency will be more critical to the outcome than the state’s Black voters.
African-Americans and Caribbean-Americans have the numbers to decide whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the March 15 primary, and whether it’s a blowout victory or a close contest.
Pressure on Hillary
The stakes are highest for Clinton, whose campaign has been left reeling by Sanders’ strong showing in states that have already voted. In Florida, Clinton is depending on the deep reservoir of support she enjoys among Black voters, political leaders and activists.
But her Florida campaign is just getting started. And so far, Black Democratic leaders said, it’s not even visible in the African-American and Caribbean-American communities.
Sanders has given even less attention than Clinton to Florida. She has made several appearances in the state; he spoke to the National Urban League convention in Fort Lauderdale, where Clinton also appeared, on July 31.
Sanders is attempting to chip away at Clinton’s support among Black voters and leaders nationally, and Clinton has made extensive efforts to head off Sanders’ inroads.
In the numbers
After he won an overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, the Clinton campaign circulated a memo from campaign manager Robby Mook in which he wrote that states like Florida, with large minority populations, are critical.
The numbers show why. More than 28 percent of the state’s registered Democrats are Black. In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, more than 33 percent of registered Democrats are Black.
“There is no, ‘Oh Lord, I have to have Bernie Sanders for president’ taking place in the African-American community. He has a couple of supporters, and their argument is not so much (for) Sanders as it is they don’t want the African-American community to be taken for granted,” U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings said.
“I have not seen any major effort in the African-American community thus far that is supportive of Senator Sanders. I do know there are substantial numbers of African-Americans who are supportive of Hillary Clinton.”
Hastings, 79, the Broward-Palm Beach county representative who became Florida’s first Black member of Congress since Reconstruction when he was elected in 1992, is one of Clinton’s longest and most outspoken supporters.
Hyacinth McFayden, of Greenacres, who is originally from Jamaica, said there is strong support for Clinton in the Caribbean-American community.
“I’m a Hillary girl all over,” said McFayden, 68. “Caribbean-Americans like her. I don’t know much about Bernie Sanders. The folks I talk to are Hillary.”
Sanders has support
But Russell Morgan, 24, of Lauderhill, recently switched his voter registration from no party affiliation/independent to Democratic so he could vote for Sanders in the primary.
“I don’t think (Clinton) necessarily has overwhelming support. I definitely think there is a route for Bernie Sanders to gain support among African-Americans,” Morgan said.
“A lot of African-Americans do not know a lot about Bernie Sanders but they do know a lot about Clinton. If Bernie can make himself more visible in the African-American community, he can get support.”
Rick Hoye, the Sunrise and Plantation area leader for the Broward Democratic Party, said Hastings, McFayden and Morgan reflect what he sees.
Hoye, 36, said he thinks older Black voters, especially women, are likely to stick with Clinton. But, he said, younger Black voters – just like younger voters in the overall population – are more open to Sanders.
“Black voters have been historically devoted to the Clintons. I think it (Florida) is still Clinton country,” Hoye said. “But that could shift because of African-American outreach efforts” when the campaign ramps up in Florida.
He said he hasn’t yet decided between Clinton and Sanders. “I like them both,” he said.
No Hillary ‘lock’
JeffriAnne Wilder, a University of North Florida sociologist who specializes in diversity and race relations, said there is potential for Sanders to perform well with Black voters in Florida.
“It’s no longer a lock for Hillary Clinton getting the widespread support from the Black community, and I think a lot of folks are surprised by that — including Hillary Clinton herself,” Wilder said.
Wilder said there’s been a major change in the two decades since “people were talking about Bill Clinton being America’s first Black president and there was this sort of unwavering support for Clinton.”
Wilder said the Black Lives Matter movement and increased concern about racial justice that has developed in the aftermath of widely publicized killings of unarmed African-Americans “has really impacted the African-American community.
“They’re looking for more than just lip service from their candidates.”
Pollsters haven’t released Florida surveys recently, but a nationwide Quinnipiac University Poll out Feb. 17 showed Clinton and Sanders effectively tied 44 percent to 42 percent in the overall population, while Clinton leads 55 percent to 30 percent among non-White voters.
Voting in the first two states to hold nominating contests — Iowa, which is 92 percent white, and New Hampshire, 94 percent white — hasn’t provided a test of support from minority voters.
As the campaign has moved on to states with more minority voters — Clinton won Nevada on Saturday, and the South Carolina primary is this Saturday — both candidates are furiously trying to demonstrate their commitment to Black voters.
List of supporters
Earlier this month, Clinton rolled out a long list of prominent female African-American supporters in politics, business and entertainment, including the political action committee of Congressional Black Caucus. Sanders received an endorsement from entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte, director Spike Lee, and rapper Killer Mike, among others.
In Florida, Clinton has the support of the state’s top Black Democrats, including Hastings, and U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Corrine Brown, and all 11 Black state senators, state representatives and county commissioners from Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Clinton also has endorsements from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the teen who was killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, in 2012, and Benjamin Crump, the Tallahassee-based civil rights lawyer who represented the family of Martin and the family of Michael Brown, whose 2014 killing by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer sparked nationwide protests.
Natalie Jackson, the Orlando civil rights lawyer who worked with Crump on the Zimmerman case, has endorsed Sanders.
Do endorsements matter?
The influence of such supporters is unclear.
“Gone are the days of just kind of taking what we hear from these supposed leaders, taking what they say, their endorsements, and following it,” Wilder said.
Hoye said he think that’s especially true for younger voters, for whom Sanders has shown great appeal.
“If you mention (civil rights leader and congressman) John Lewis, Alcee Hastings to some people, they may not even know who these people are,” Hoye said.
More effort necessary
As part of her nationwide effort to stall any Sanders movement among Black voters, Clinton’s campaign held a rally Feb. 15 in the mostly Black city of Riviera Beach, where several Black politicians vouched for her. Clinton wasn’t there. Worried about Sanders in Nevada, she stayed there to campaign and sent her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to campaign on her behalf in Riviera Beach.
Hastings and Christine Jones, vice chairwoman of the Broward Democratic Party, said Clinton needs to do more to maintain her support and ensure a good turnout among Black voters. Among their recommendations: local staffers organizing on her behalf and campaign offices in Black neighborhoods.
“We never see any of her representatives in our area. That’s an issue for us. They need to be visual.
They need to attend meetings that we have,” Jones said.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor said that ultimately, “the African-American community is majority for Hillary. I think Hillary has been fighting this fight for a long time. From speaking to people, she’s going to be OK in the African-American community here.”
Still, she said, Clinton “needs to come back here and let this community know it’s important to her. You still can’t take it for granted.”