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Re-enfranchisement

Nourishing the black vote with an alphabet soup of groups

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On one end: the county's Democratic Committee, which lost credit with the black community for failing to endorse several black county office candidates in recent primaries. On the other: an estimated 88 percent of blacks, who turned out ... to be no-shows in recent elections.

While this tug of war plays on, several political groups have emerged, hoping they can convince blacks that electoral politics as empowerment is not dead.

Just before the 2003 primaries, the county saw the reboot of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), which began 17 years ago in response, their officials say, to disgruntlement from the black community about their representation in local government.

B-PEP footwork was organized largely by the efforts of Good Schools PA Director Celeste Taylor, who also assists the recently resurrected Western Pennsylvania Black Political Assembly (WPBPA), a group of local black activists who say they are tired of being taken for granted by the Democratic Party and attacked by the Republican Party.

WPBPA and B-PEP say their comebacks were inspired by Dems' failure to endorse former County Council President James Simms for county controller and current District 13 County Councilor (D-Stanton Heights) Brenda Frazier for re-election. 

 Frazier, meanwhile, chairs her own group, the Black Elected Officials of Allegheny County (BEOAC). She once shared this chair with District 6 City Councilor Sala Udin, but Udin recently stepped down to help start yet another group, the Black Democratic Caucus (BDC).

That's a lot of letters for a lot of groups that exist for a lot of the same reasons, but Celeste Taylor assures there are distinctions.

While Udin's and Frazier's groups work to bolster black political muscle in government chambers, B-PEP hits the streets to register and educate eligible black voters ("Black Power Back to the People," April 16).

Most ambitious, perhaps, is the WPBPA, which seeks to create one "Black Agenda" leading to a proposed 2004 National Black Political Convention, which they hope to form with similar assemblies in other cities. Such a conference took place in 1972 when thousands of black leaders -- among them Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Julian Bond -- convened in Gary, Ind. to establish a similar agenda, many of whose items have still never been fulfilled.

At a recent WPBPA forum at Deliverance Baptist Church in Wilkinsburg, national polling specialist Carlos Brossard suggested black candidates upgrade their analyses of demographic targets so that they can determine ward voting patterns throughout wards. Simms lost the county controller bid, Brossard suggested, because he campaigned "randomly," pitching himself in areas that historically never vote for black candidates.

"Where Simms was right in principle about running," said Brossard, "he was just wrong in tactic."

Current interim District 10 County Councilor Louis "Hop" Kendrick (D-Point Breeze) added that blacks did not do enough to help finance and organize a successful Simms campaign. "Most of those debates and dinners Simms attended by himself," Kendrick said. "We didn't show up to chauffer him or offer him a ride. We provided no office space, we raised no funds. Simms was a one-man campaign."

Low black voter turnout has been debated heavily in the New Pittsburgh Courier since the primaries took place, with some writers calling blacks who don't vote "traitors" to the race, and others calling for an all-out black withdrawal from voting. As Diotrophes Thomas wrote in a letter to the editor: "Blacks are collectively realizing that minority votes in a majority rule nation mean little or nothing."

Rick Adams, a leading organizer of WPBPA, says that's why new voting procedures -- choosing your first, second and third preferences in each election, for instance -- ought to be pursued. "Anyone who sells the idea that voting alone will guarantee answers to the problems confronting our communities is indeed selling snake oil," he says. "We have to use every weapon at our disposal, including organizing our communities, self-help economic development programs, litigation and social protest."

"J.T." Tarpley, an outspoken local black activist and KDKA radio talk-show host, says voting gives blacks "the belief that we are a part of America" while offering blacks "no return investment," but he still has worked to register thousands of county blacks.

Says Tarpley: "Voting could be used as our weapon of mass destruction."

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