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In Houston, a joker in the mayoral deck: Political consultants who work for candidates in both parties routinely decry the use of race as an issue to mobilize voters - The Political Professional

IN AMERICAN POLITICS, race has replaced patriotism as the last refugee of scoundrels. Or perhaps it has become, as writer Ambrose Bierce might have observed, the first.

Time after time, the infamous race card is thrown down as a gauntlet by one campaign or the other in an effort to motivate voters. In political terms, this makes some sense

In Houston, a joker in the mayoral deck: Political consultants who work for candidates in both parties routinely decry the use of race as an issue to mobilize voters - The Political ProfessionalIncreasingly, racial polarization among the electorate has been a defining factor in elections. In last November's presidential election, most if not all analyses of voting patterns show Al Gore winning over 90 percent of the votes of blacks casting ballots. Asian and Hispanic voters leaned towards the Democrat by margins that were substantial -- 2 to 1 in the case of Hispanics -- but less than the lopsided black landslide. And George W Bush won lust over half of the white vote.

Gore's performance among black voters was higher than that achieved by earlier Democrat standard-bearers -- but not by very much. American blacks vote in overwhelming numbers for Democrat candidates at most levels of government. So, incidentally, do Jews.

And although these voting blocs are numerical minorities, they may influence the result far more strongly than their numbers suggest. With only about 40 percent of potential voters actually casting ballots, the virtual ownership of a voting bloc is an important advantage for a candidate -- and an important handicap for his or her opponent.

So if a campaign lacks a positive agenda or a strong record on which to run, it will be strongly tempted to resort to creating a climate of fear in an effort to render the opposition totally unacceptable. Result: fear mongering, race pandering and not-so-subtle charges of racism being tossed about like bags of peanuts at a baseball game.

Consider the case of Houston, Texas.

Incumbent Mayor Lee Brown, a Democrat, was in a tough fight for re-election against Republican City Councilman Orlando Sanchez. Ultimately, Brown barely survived re-election, winning 51 percent of the vote in a runoff where, incredibly, turnout was actually higher then it had been on the day of the general election.

Brown's record as mayor fell short of stellar. Carpet-bagged into a 1997 race against businessman Rob Mosbacher son of the former Commerce secretary, the former New York City police commissioner emerged victorious in the city's most expensive mayoral contest up to that time. During his tenure, Brown has come under fire for problems with the city's system of public safety. Along with most urban centers, Houston has been hit by budget woes as a result of the economic downturn -- and transportation and roads are always critical issues.

In addition, Brown suffered collateral damage from "friendly fire" -- attacks launched by national Democrats during the 2000 presidential campaign on the quality of life in Houston. The target of the attacks was George W. Bush, at that time the governor of Texas, but some of the missiles hit B own as well.

All of this made the contest a close one -- and thus increased the temptation to cry racism.

Interestingly, both sides in the campaign claimed the race card was being used against them For his part, Mayor Brown said that efforts by the Sanchez campaign to place poll-watchers in heavily black precincts were intimidating. The chair of the Texas Democrats asked the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor the voting.

Also, according to the mayor's campaign, allegedly racist anti-Brown materials were left at Houston fire stations. Brown aides also denounced a telephone campaign that called the mayor a tool of "rich downtown white folks," calls not made by the Sanchez campaign (which denounced them) but by gubernatorial candidate John Worldpeace, who, like Brown, is a Democrat.

Another telephone campaign, moreover, attempted to portray Sanchez as an even worse kind of racist,

In a telephone message to voters, Louvon Harris sister to James Byrd Jr., the man who was dragged to his death by three white racists in Jasper, Texas, and who became a central issue f the 2000 presidential election, suggested that Sanchez is, himself, the kind of racist who condones murdering people because they are different.

"My name is Louvon Harris, A few years ago, my brother, James Byrd Jr., was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death -- just because of the color of his skin. That's why the election for mayor is so important to me. You see, Orlando Sanchez, the Republican candidate for mayor, helped lead the fight against the James Byrd Jr. hate-crimes law. And when some of Mr. Sanchez's supporters sent out fliers calling Mayor Brown racist names, Orlando Sanchez refused to condemn this hate material. I fear a city under Orlando Sanchez. Early voting has started. Please make sure to vote for Mayor Brown, because if hate wins, Houston loses."

The calls were almost identical to those made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2000 against George W. Bush. Admittedly, Sanchez voted against a resolution that would have made passage of the hate crimes bill part of the City Council's legislative agenda in Austin. But Marc Levin, who writes for the Austin Review says the hate crimes bill discussed in the ad would have had zero impact on the punishment of the men who killed James Byrd Jr.

Levin says "legislators who backed the hate crimes bill... acknowledge that it has no effect on crimes such as murder, but is instead intended to enhance penalties for much less severe crimes, such as painting a swastika on a synagogue." He also argues that the bill is likely to be judged unconstitutional because it places too much weight on condemning opinions and states of mind rather than criminal acts.

Whatever the validity of such arguments, it was clearly a stretch to allege that a vote against anything connected to a hate-crimes bill is an endorsement of dragging people to their death behind pick up trucks. Yet the Brown campaign, through the mouth of Ms. Harris, alleged exactly that.

In 1998, the Missouri Democratic Party aired radio ads targeted at black voters saying every time you don't vote another church burns, that exploited fears, later shown to be unfounded, that an organized campaign was underway to burn predominantly black churches to the ground.

Political consultants who work for candidates in both parties routinely decry the use of race as an issue to mobilize voters. The national media attack the practice over and over but are most often less than evenhanded in their assignment of blame for such tactics.

Candidates like Orlando Sanchez are held to account for imaginary racial slurs and for obvious exploitations committed by supporters who are working in a genuinely independent fashion. The Brown campaign made much of race-baiting activities by certain marginal political figures in Houston from which Sanchez might have benefited but instead was condemned.

At the same time, they turned a blind eye to posters labeling Sanchez "anti-Hispanic" because, in a city where many voters are Mexican or of Mexican descent, Sanchez is of Cuban extraction. The effort to manipulate the distinction is not new. In 1995, when Sanchez first ran for City Council, a group of Democrat Latino leaders denounced him as anti-Hispanic.

Anti-white messages and scare tactics of equal or more potent venom are, like the Missouri Democrats' radio ad from 1998, routinely denied the national exposure that even the most arguably imaginary GOP race smears receive.

But some of the same consultants still use the tactic and some of the same reporters continue to repeat the charges. What is needed, many serious students of politics agree, is for all exploitations of racial sentiments to be seen with the same critical attitude. Unfortunately, the prospects for that are poor because the principle with race-card politics is that, all too often, it works.