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Push Toward The Presidency

A black convention urges Jesse Jackson's candidacy

By Susan Tifft

Time cover

(TIME, August 8, 1983) -- The timing was masterly. When Presidential Hopeful Walter Mondale stepped to the rostrum at a forum held by the twelfth annual Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) convention last week in Atlanta, he turned to acknowledge the organization's national president, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. " President Jackson," he nodded. As laughter rippled throught the crowd, Mondale turned to his fellow Democrats on the dais, Senators Alan Cranston and Ernest Hollings, paused and playfully inquired, " President Jackson?"

Mondale's sly question drew a roar of approval from an audience of black ministers, small-town mayors and businessmen. Officially, they were meeting to discuss issues such as education, jobs, black voting rights and voter registration. But the gathering turned into a pep rally for a black presidential candidate, with Jackson, 41, at the top of the ticket. His speeches were interrupted by chants of "Run, Jesse, run." Delegates sported buttons with Jackson's face and the I AM SOMEBODY tag line he coined and made famous. "If not now, when?" demanded Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind., in a luncheon address. "If not Jesse Jackson, who?"

Publicly, both black and white Democratic leaders applaud the idea of a black presidential candidate and most acknowledge that Jackson is the most popular draw. "A Jackson candidacy would be fabulous," says California Congressman Tony Coelho, chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee. "It's a big plus." Privately, however, many Democrats, including black politicians, are ambivalent at best. "I can't see any benefit to be derived from a black candidacy," says Georgia State Senator Julian Bond. "If I could, I'd be persuaded."

Though not even Jackson expects a black bid in 1984 to lead to the Oval Office, it makes a certain amount of tactical sense. Blacks have been trooping to voting booths in growing numbers, making them a potent factor in the choice of the next President. The new clout was manifest in the recent wins of Harold Washington in the Chicago mayoral race and W. Wilson Goode in the Philadelphia Democratic mayoral primary. These heady successes have spurred blacks, who vote Democratic 9 to 1 and routinely represent from 20% to 25% of the Democratic bloc in national elections, to demand more say. "Blacks have voted for whites ever since we struggled and got the right to vote," Jackson told PUSH delegates. "If we can take the Democratic dagger out of our backs in '83, we can stop Republican arrows in '84."

The claims is more than hollow rhetoric. If a black candidacy in the primaries motivates a large number of the South's more than 2 million unregistered blacks to get on the rolls, it could affect a close election. The Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank, estimates that the number of unregistered voting-age blacks in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi is greater than Reagan's total margin of victory in 1980.

The idea of a black candidacy surfaced formally last winter, when the "black leadership family," a loosely knit coalition of black politicians, civil rights leaders and academics toyed with the notion of forcing the Democratic Party to allot funds for black voter registration. Soon thereafter, Jackson, a member of the group, started his own registration drive, calling it the Southern Crusade. Speaking in his characteristic evangelist's cadence as he moved around the country, Jackson would thunder to rapt audiences: "There's a freedom train a comin'. But you've got to be registered to ride." Jackson's candidacy began to gather momentum. A July New York Times -- CBS News poll placed him an impressive third in the lineup for the Democratic nomination, behind Mondale and Ohio Senator John Glenn.

As his popularity has grown, Jackson has taken pains to court Democratic leaders, reassuring them that his power will be used for benign purposes. He has assured Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt that he will not inadvertently aid Reagan by mounting an independent general election bid. "He is very careful, very cautious, very moderate in tone," says an aide to Presidential Candidate Gary Hart. "He's trying to counter the notion that he's crazy." Many black party pros, however, worry that a black candidacy could backfire, siphoning off votes from a liberal such as Mondale and leaving Glenn, a moderate, as the party nominee. "Blacks shouldn't just settle on any Democraft," comments Mickey Leland, a black Texas Congressman. "They should back someone who cares about their programs."

Officially, Mondale aides say the effect of a Jackson push at this point is "unknowable," although polls show Jackson shaving 4% or 5% from Mondale's share of the vote. Privately, Mondale strategists have met with Jackson and his aides to outline problems of finance and organization. They have stressed that Democratic Party rules such as the "threshold" requirement which says that a candidate must win at least 20% of the vote in a primary or caucus to gain any delegates, will make it tough for Jackson to win more than 150 to 200 of the Democratic Covention's nearly 4,000 delegates. That fact seems unlikely to influence Jackson or his supporters. "If he could win a few primaries and lock up a couple of hundred delegates," says George E. Johnson, President of Chicago-based Johnson Products Co., Inc., "we [blacks] could go into the convention with some power."

But many black elected officials and civil rights leaders consider Jackson a media performer who is short on follow through. In June the black leadership family endorsed the concept of a black candidacy but did not name Jackson. Because of Jackson's grass-roots popularity, however, few prominent black leaders oppose him openly, though many do privately. "I just don't trust him. He's like a loose cannon," confessed one black Southern official. "He's never finished anything he's started."

Jackson appears unbowed by the criticism. "I think jealousy is a factor sometimes," he said. Indeed, the epigram-spouting Jackson is so accessible and eager to supply a colorful comment that many collective black successes are wrongfully attributed only to him. Jackson is widely credited with the surge of black voter registration and turnout in Chicago, for example, although the drive was far from a one-man or even a one-organization effort. His current registration crusade has received wide attention, although it is only part of a larger campaign that includes the Urban League, the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights organizations. "I am a catalyst for change," says Jackson. "People invite me to interpret an issue and draw a crowd."

A '60s civil rights activist and disciple of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson founded Operation PUSH, a black self-help group based in Chicago, in 1971. He has never held elected political office. "He has certain qualities that would make him a good candidate," says James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League, "but my own preference would be for a professional politician." Jackson also has a reputation as a sloppy money manager. Last month an unflattering interim federal audit of PUSH-EXCEL, a motivational program for high school students, surfaced in Chicago, raising questions about the program's use of $ 1.7 million in federal funds.

Nonetheless, Jackson is sounding more and more like a serious candidate. His keynote address to PUSH delegates paid only token attention to civil rights concerns and contained lengthy sections on economic and foreign policy. In traditional campaign-rally style, his wife Jacqueline, usually absent from his appearances, was in the audience at Atlanta. "I'm reluctant to run," Jackson says. "But I'm convinced somebody ought to go." Critical to the decision, which he says he will make in September: the congealing of his "rainbow coalition" of blacks, Hispanics, women, peace activists and environmentalists. But with an exploratory committee, headed by Mayor Hatcher, established and a "draft" committee of black ministers set to deliver a million-signature petition to Jackson by late August, his hat is already sailing toward the ring. Says New York Congressman Charles Rangel: "He's a Baptist minister, and Baptist ministers get callings.

Reported by Jack E. White/Atlanta and Don Winbush/Chicago

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