Clay Hits Dean’s Flag Comment

Posted November 4, 2003 at 6:52pm

Attempting to further stoke the controversy sparked by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s comments regarding the Confederate flag, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) fired off a letter to the Democratic presidential candidate on Monday seeking an explanation.

Clay, who is black and an unabashed supporter of Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) campaign, alleged that Dean’s stated desire to be a “candidate for guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks” amounts to a “tacit endorsement” of a line of thinking that is “shocking and disturbing to every American who appreciates the progress our country has made in promoting civil rights and racial equality.”

Clay also attacked Dean for what the Congressman alleged was past opposition to affirmative action programs and a generally pro-Second Amendment stance.

In an interview Tuesday, Clay predicted that Dean’s comments would have a chilling effect on endorsements of his campaign from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“Those that have considered Dean will be running away from him now,” said Clay. “Those who have already supported him will rethink their endorsement.”

CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (Md.) declined to comment on the possible impact Dean’s remarks would have on his group. Vice Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) could not be reached for comment.

Clay, a second-term Member from the St. Louis area, serves as the national chairman for Gephardt’s presidential campaign. The contest between Dean and Gephardt in the Iowa caucuses is increasingly being portrayed as a make-or-break occasion for the former House Minority Leader.

Clay’s ties to Gephardt led the Dean campaign to argue that the letter was little more than an attempt to score political points.

“The Washington politicians in this race are fighting for their political lives with every desperate negative attack they can muster,” said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. “From holding conference calls with the other campaigns to in this instance putting pressure on their supporters, they are trying to attack Governor Dean and stop his momentum.”

Carson was referring to a call that took place last week between the camps of Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards (N.C.) and John Kerry (Mass.). Their aim was to develop a strategy to keep Dean from winning the Service Employees International Union endorsement. The union — the largest AFL-CIO affiliate — is set to announce its decision on Thursday.

The hubbub surrounding Dean’s remarks, made during a campaign stop in Iowa last weekend, comes on the heels of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s (D-Ill.) endorsement of the former governor’s candidacy, something Dean’s allies hope will be a major boost to his support in the black community generally and within the CBC specifically.

Jackson is one of the nation’s most prominent black elected officials and his support could provide access to a national political organization long maintained by his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and used to some effect during his 1984 and 1988 presidential runs.

In a statement released Saturday, Jackson defended Dean’s comments, saying they reflected the “great task” Dean was trying to accomplish in uniting poor and middle-class blacks and whites from the North and South.

Jackson called that effort the “key to wresting our democracy away from the race-oriented right-wing.”

Campaign insiders said Jackson spoke with Dean this weekend and offered his support. He also appeared on a number of black radio programs Tuesday morning defending Dean’s comments.

Clay suggested that Jackson would reconsider his endorsement given Dean’s recent comments. “It will be interesting to see what he will do,” Clay said.

Rep. Major Owens (N.Y.), the only other CBC member to endorse Dean so far, did not return calls for comment.

The vituperative back and forth between Dean and his main rivals for the nominations — Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — over the flag issue highlights the emphasis each campaign is putting on courting the black vote in the primary process. The eagerness with which his foes pounced on the issue also reflects a desire to depict Dean as not possessing the necessary temperament to serve as president.

This focus extends to the CBC, whose members have been slow to join the endorsement game to this point.

Of the 37 CBC members, only 13 have backed a candidate for president. Edwards leads with four endorsements (two from his home state); Kerry has three, while Dean and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) each have two. Gephardt and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have been endorsed by one Member apiece.

Cummings has said repeatedly that the group is not likely to endorse any one candidate en masse, but securing a majority of the organization would clearly be a feather in the cap of any of the candidates.

Donna Brazile, a prominent black Democratic consultant and a contributing Roll Call writer, said the caucus members “by and large are scattered” among the candidates and that Dean’s comments are not likely to seriously impact his support in the group.

In past interviews, a number of CBC members said they planned to make up their minds on a candidate shortly after the organization’s second presidential debate. That took place in Detroit on Oct. 26.

Gephardt appears to have the inside track on securing the backing of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, perhaps the most sought-after endorsee in the CBC.

Clyburn is the most powerful black elected official in the Palmetto State, which holds it presidential primary Feb. 3, 2004, just days after the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.

Blacks comprise roughly 30 percent of the state’s population and a significantly higher percentage of the Democratic primary electorate.

Dean has been the target of a string of recent attacks from his rivals for the Democratic nomination, as polling in Iowa and New Hampshire has shown him at or near the top of the field. His fundraising has vastly surpassed the other eight candidates in the race.

Led by Gephardt and Kerry, Dean has been forced to defend himself on Medicare, affirmative action and guns, among other hot-button issues, in recent weeks.

Carson appeared unconcerned about the overall impact these salvos have had on his candidate.

“When Washington politicians attack, the support for this campaign grows,” Carson said.

Gephardt senior adviser Steve Elmendorf dismissed that response as typical Dean.

“Every time someone questions Governor Dean’s record he always comes back with a process argument instead of answering the substance,” Elmendorf said.