Play Of The Week
Racial Politics Vs. Coalition Politics
By Bill Schneider/CNN
It is very rare for a first-term officeholder to lose a bid for renomination in his own party. Yet that is what happened this week in St. Louis.
On Tuesday, the city's first African-American mayor, Freeman Bosley Jr., lost the Democratic primary by a whopping 13-point margin. The upset was pulled off by Clarence Harmon, who had been the city's first African-American police chief.
"Just six short weeks ago, there were a lot of people who didn't think this would be possible," said Harmon. "They relied on the smart money and the conventional wisdom in assessing my candidacy."
The key issue in the campaign was Bosley himself. Harmon charged the mayor with cronyism, corruption and mismanagement. An ad intoned: "$120,000 stolen from midnight basketball. Money for police and children's health care squandered. Hundreds of city cell phones misused. And millions in city contract handouts to his political cronies."
Like mayors up for re-election all over the country this year, Mayor Bosley could point to a declining crime rate. But that becomes a problem if your opponent happens to be a former police chief. "We have less crime in St. Louis because Clarence Harmon stood up to politics as usual and built an honest police force that works," claimed another Harmon ad.
Harmon's upset wasn't the only big surprise an primary night. The results showed an extraordinary degree of racial polarization. An exit poll showed whites voting overwhelmingly for Harmon, 94 percent to 5 percent, while black voters stuck overwhelmingly with Mayor Bosley, 83 percent to Harmon's 17 percent.
Moreover, turnout was unusually high, especially in the city's white wards, where the numbers approached presidential election levels. Republicans joined with Democrats to organize a huge turnout of white voters against the mayor.
But wait a minute -- this was a race between two black men. How in the world did it become so racially divisive?
There are two styles of black politics: racial politics and coalition politics. As mayor, Bosley came to be seen as a racial politician. He had a street-smart style. He rewarded his black base with jobs and contracts. He campaigned as the true representative of the black community. Bosley depicted Harmon as the candidate of the white establishment.
But Harmon, whose wife is white, ran as the candidate of racial harmony. "The best representation that you have to provide is provided for all the people," he said during the campaign. "Everybody has to feel included."
That's coalition politics: not us vs. them, but something for everybody. The key shift came in the racially mixed central corridor of the city, where liberal white voters, who would have been reluctant to support a white candidate over Mayor Bosley, felt comfortable voting for a black alternative.
In St. Louis an Tuesday, coalition politics trumped racial politics and gave Clarence Harmon a victory -- and the Political Play of the Week.
But Harmon has one big problem: his coalition did not include many black voters, as Mayor Bosley was quick to point out. "It's going to take a lot of healing to put this town back together," he told a rally.
That's a concern the nearly certain next mayor of St. Louis intends to address. "I'm particularly concerned about the African-American community," he says, "their concern about whether or not I will represent their interests fairly, and so I'll be doing a lot of meetings in the black community principally."
Mayor Bosley got about the same support from black voters that he got four years ago. What changed this year was the white vote turned against him. In a lot of big cities these days, whites, particularly liberal whites, are becoming the swing vote.
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