A Short History of Racialist Politics

A Short History of Racialist Politics
Dr. Lenora Fulani

Eight years ago there was a Black candidate in the Democratic Party primary for Governor who ran against someone named Cuomo. The Cuomo in question was Mario Cuomo, then the three-term sitting governor. The Black candidate who challenged him in the Democratic primary was me.

Unlike with Carl McCall’s current bid, in 1994 there was no cry from Black Democratic leadership to support me on the grounds that my campaign would energize the Black Agenda or that my election would empower African-Americans. There was no talk promoting the fact that if elected, I’d be the first Black governor of New York. To the contrary.

The Black Democrats’ posture toward me was – in a word – hostile. Two Black Democratic county leaders installed a round-the-clock operation at the Board of Elections in an effort to challenge my petitions and throw me off the ballot. They failed. When Governor Cuomo refused to appear in a televised debate with me – his only challenger in the Democratic primary – the Black Democrats did not criticize him or hold him to account. Gabe Pressman – who is not Black – did more to call attention to Cuomo’s arrogance than any Black leader when he hosted a debate on WNBC-TV between me and an empty chair.

Rev. Al Sharpton, who had personally pledged to me that he would endorse my candidacy against Cuomo, broke his promise. Instead of supporting a “sister,” Sharpton and his buddy, Alton “Fulani’s a Whore” Maddox, spent the entire campaign attacking me in the Black media.

Why were the Black Democrats so incensed about my run? Because they had a very specific agenda in 1994 and my candidacy threw a wrench into their plans. The 1994 election cycle was supposed to be Rev. Sharpton’s year – when Black Democrats resurrected him -this time, as a legitimate mainstream leader who would become the new Democratic arbiter of the Black vote.

The Democrats needed to crush me in order to properly position Sharpton.

In spite of the Black Democrats’ vicious antagonism toward my candidacy, and Cuomo having spent $3.5 million to my $180,000, on primary day I polled 21% of the vote. In Black Assembly Districts I polled between 30% and 35%.

The Black Democrats tried to be sanguine about my results. “A ham sandwich could have gotten 20%,” Assemblyman Herman Denny Farrell, now Democratic state party chairman, said at the time. In contrast, the Amsterdam News was more forthcoming. It described my showing as “incredible,” adding “Fulani and the organized Black community may well hold the key to victory or defeat” for Cuomo.

My candidacy had become a barometer of the growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party in the Black community. Cuomo was well aware of the perception that he was responsible for David Dinkins’ defeat in 1993, when he cunningly chose to commission and release the notorious Girgenti Report – which negatively evaluated Mayor Dinkins’ performance during the Crown Heights incidents – in the midst of the rematch between Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani. Cuomo’s strong advocacy for Carl McCall – then a first-time candidate for State Comptroller – was his strategy for neutralizing his “negatives” among African-Americans given that he had just helped elect a provocatively anti-Black mayor. McCall’s candidacy was promoted by Cuomo and the Black leadership as the opportunity to elect the first Black statewide official, but its true purpose was to help Cuomo survive. McCall was just a pawn – and a beneficiary – in the Democrats’ power game.

McCall won. Cuomo lost. George Pataki won. And, in a little reported story, the Black community won, too, because the Independence Party – whose gubernatorial candidate, Tom Golisano, I supported in the general election – won ballot status and began to evolve as a vehicle for Black empowerment.

We saw the fruits of that process recently when the Independence Party’s backing of Mike Bloomberg helped produce 30% of the Black vote for the new mayor and created a “new paradigm” – a non-Democrat paradigm – in Black politics.

Black grassroots dissatisfaction with the Democrats, which surfaced under Mayor Ed Koch in the ’80s, seethed under Mario Cuomo in the ’90s, and exploded in response to the vulgar racialism of the Democratic mayoral primary last year, has the Black Democrats worried. They’re worried – having lived through the Bloomberg experience – that the political cat is out of the bag. Now that a large segment of our community has tasted political freedom by voting against the Democrats and in their own interests, the leadership may not so easily stuff Black voters back in. Carl McCall is the Great Black Hope – the candidate through whom the Black Democrats hope to re-establish their iron-fisted control over the Black vote.

This year’s governor’s race, in my opinion, is about these issues – issues of power. It is not about racial achievement. It is not even about which of the candidates have the better education policy or job creation record or government experience. That is how the contest is being defined by partisan types across the spectrum and certainly the Black Democrats are trying to define it in those terms. We must define for ourselves what the election is about. And it must be about improving and advancing our political strength – as a community and as partners in broader coalitions. That means learning how to see through the smoke and mirrors of racialistic appeals. That means being smart enough to continue building the independent road.

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