You can see the confusion on some of their faces, hear the concern in their voices. How in the world do we deal with this?
Hillary Clinton's black supporters -- especially the most prominent ones -- hadn't expected their candidate to be in a dogfight right now. They thought Barack Obama was an election cycle or two away from being serious presidential timber. They thought Bill Clinton's presidency and the close relationships the Clintons had forged with African Americans would translate into goo-gobs of votes in '08. They were wrong.
Remember all the commentator chatter last summer: Is Barack Obama black enough?
Well, he's black enough now.
Obama has swamped Clinton among black voters in each of the 20 contests that had exit polls and large enough samples of African Americans to be meaningful. Just to put that kind of shutout in perspective, black voters represent the only demographic group that the New York senator has not carried at least once during the Democratic primary campaign. Obama now has such a lock on the loyalties of African Americans -- 84 percent of the black vote in Alabama, 87 percent in Georgia, 84 percent in Maryland, and on and on -- that the black vote is no longer contestable.
Which brings us back to the dilemma facing some of Clinton's high-profile black supporters -- those with titles and constituencies of their own. They are feeling some kind of crazy pressure. Last Friday, about 25 of them held an hour-long conference call to discuss what one described as an effort to "pester, intimidate, question our blackness" for not supporting Obama.
The catalyst for the call was a report in the New York Times that Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was wavering in his support of Clinton. Lewis would not comment, but according to the Times, the congressman had indicated he was prepared to fully flip and back Obama and thus be more in step with his congressional district, which voted 3-to-1 for Obama on Super Tuesday. This bit of news was extremely significant, for Lewis is one of the coveted "superdelegates," those 796 elected officials and party insiders who are not bound by anything that has or will happen at the polls. They are free to choose the candidate of their liking, as unpledged delegates to the national convention. And with the nomination fight so razor-close, they are being wooed -- some say harassed -- like never before.
Lewis's office tried to put the brakes on the notion that a switch of allegiance to Obama was imminent. But too late. Some of Clinton's other black supporters decided to rally and try to blunt the fallout. Among those on the conference call were Trenton Mayor Doug Palmer, former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, and congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio.
Palmer was among the more forceful voices, urging others on the call, as he put it yesterday, "to stand up and say why you're for Hillary Clinton in the face of adversity. We can't afford to be wishy-washy . . . Stand up. Fight. Advocate for your candidate. Don't capitulate. . . . Don't let nobody intimidate or threaten you. Just hold on."
In an interview Palmer still sounded riled about a few things he had heard about. One of them, reported by the Associated Press, was a private conversation between Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Clinton supporter, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), one of Obama's national campaign co-chairmen. Both lawmakers are superdelegates. Jackson had asked Cleaver if he wanted to go down in history as someone who prevented an African American from occupying the White House for the first time. Separately, Jackson told the AP that supporting Clinton in districts where Obama won overwhelmingly might place those politicians at risk of a primary challenge.
It just so happens that Palmer, the first black mayor of Trenton and an 18-year incumbent, presides over a city that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Not that he is worried, mind you. Just bothered.
"To intimate that you may face a challenge for what you believe in, I just think that's over the top," said Palmer, who was first elected in 1990 by a 300-vote margin and has been reelected fairly easily ever since. "I think my citizens pretty much understand that I am a person who stands up for what I believe in. I'm not saying that if I run again somebody won't hold that against me. That's politics."
And should some upstart decide to take him on in 2010 for siding with Clinton in this year's presidential race? "My thing is: Bring it on!" Palmer declared.
Bravado has its place in American politics, but so does perspective.
Black Clinton supporters are feeling the same heat that black backers of Walter Mondale felt in 1984. Many black elected officials signed on early with Mondale, some because of the former vice president's civil rights record and his long ties to African Americans, some because of practical political considerations: They knew Jesse Jackson wasn't going to be the Democratic nominee, and so they went with the likely winner. They played it safe.
What many didn't foresee was how much excitement Jackson's campaign would generate in black communities, and how many new voters he would bring into the Democratic Party. His 1984 campaign became a cause for many who were not invested in politics, a way of embracing hope -- Jackson's equivalent of Obama's change -- and what it meant to be black at that point in time. Jackson drew large crowds and racked up big black vote totals. Black political and civil rights icons found themselves on the outside for being on the wrong side. Mickey Leland, a popular Texas congressman who later died in a plane crash, was booed and hissed at his own state's Democratic Party convention for backing Mondale. At the Democratic National Convention, Andrew Young was jeered by black delegates loyal to Jackson, as was Coretta Scott King, who was brought to tears by the experience. Jackson was so ashamed by the treatment of King that he intervened, telling black delegates: "It's a source of embarrassment to me . . . for you to boo or hiss any black leader in this country."
Like Jackson back then, Obama's campaign is creating unease for black politicians who find themselves out of sync with their constituencies. One big difference, of course: Obama is in a position to win.
The moment, observes Willie Brown, the former San Francisco mayor and longtime speaker of the California assembly, is like nothing that has ever been realized for a black officeholder. "It's like Michael Jordan and Dr. J. wrapped into one, playing basketball by themselves," says Brown, who is neutral in the presidential race.
That black voters have so embraced Obama, even against the legacy of the Clintons, is not surprising to Brown. "I think most white politicians do not understand that the race pride we all have trumps everything else."
It appears many black politicians also didn't understand how far racial pride would extend this election season. They are being called out on blogs, and petitioned in their home districts for going against Obama -- to their surprise and dismay.
"Some African American leaders, quite frankly, underestimated him," said Cassandra Butts, a longtime Obama friend and adviser.
They're not underestimating him anymore.