WASHINGTON – Participants in this month's Congressional Black Caucus conference say the defeat of two black House members in bitter primaries not only suggests a widening rift with Jewish Democrats, but trouble within the Democratic Party itself.
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"People were talking retaliation," said Ron Walters, the director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, of last week's CBC events in Washington. "They were saying [presidential hopeful] Sen. Joe Lieberman is dead in the water, and so on and so forth."
The anger is emanating from reports that several outside Jewish special interest groups took a particular interest in defeating Reps. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., and Earl Hilliard, D-Ala., by fueling the campaigns of their respective Democratic primary opponents with thousands of dollars and an interest in seeing the incumbents defeated for their long-standing support of Palestinians.
Both incumbents lost in stunning defeats.
McKinney blamed the Jewish lobby and the Democratic Party for her Aug. 20 primary loss by 16 percentage points to Judge Denise Majette, who is also black. The five-termer had sparked the ire of the Jewish community with her outreach to Arabs, particularly after the Sept. 11 attacks, and her support of Palestinians in light of terrorist bombings in Israel. She received ample financial support in her campaign from Arab groups.
Hilliard, too, is a fervent supporter of Palestinians, and lost in June 56-44 percent to opponent Artur Davis, who is also black and was supported heavily by Jewish special interest dollars.
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Walters said their defeats were payback from the wealthy Jewish lobby.
"When you unseat two black candidates, it's not a freak thing, it's a strategy. It took black candidates by surprise, and it's made them very angry," he said. "Why the leadership of the party didn't do anything, that's the big mystery."
Political observers say McKinney was the only one to blame for her own defeat. She alienated the Democratic Jewish community after Sept. 11 when she slammed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for returning a $10 million check to a Saudi prince who had linked the attacks to America's Mideast policy. McKinney wrote the prince a letter criticizing Giuliani and asking for the money back to give to poor black communities.
Others say McKinney just didn't speak to black voters in her district anymore, while Republican voters who could vote in the primary crossed lines en masse to help defeat her.
"There is a wide variety of reasons as to why that defeat might have happened," said John Norton, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. Norton said the party does not get involved in primaries, but in this case, "We would never pin it [defeat] on a group of outsiders who are wed to a particular issue."
Despite the building case against McKinney, political analysts agree that Jews, though traditionally loyal to the Democratic Party, have been moving further to the right since President Bush took office. The president's support of Israel, combined with his "compassionate conservatism," has done a lot to soften their attitudes against Republicans in the last year.
"Jews are clearly moving in a conservative direction, particularly at city and state levels," said Murray Friedman, head of the Center for Jewish History at Temple University and author of What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.
Jewish-black relations have been "waxing and waning" since the '60s, he said, and tensions uncovered in the Hilliard and McKinney races "are just a continuation of that."
Friedman said past anti-Semitic rhetoric against Jews by visible members of the black community like the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and the fact there was no clear support for Israel by black members on recent resolutions in Congress, have exacerbated this growing rift between the two traditional allies.
"It's not helpful to have this rift out in the open -- this spells trouble for the Democratic Party," said Rich Galen, who is Jewish and a Republican strategist. He says if black voters follow through with plans to retaliate against the party for not doing more to save McKinney and Hilliard's seats, it could be disastrous. At the same time, he said, Democratic Jews may be wondering where the party was when black lawmakers were making statements against Israel.
"It all ends up spelling trouble for Democrats," he added.
Walters said the party has gone on double duty to quell the anger among blacks, who are by a vast majority Democrats. He doesn't buy that McKinney had lost support among the black voters in her district, but blames Republicans and Jewish outsiders, and a lack of support from the party.
"I just don't know why the Democratic leadership didn't step up and wrestle this to the ground," he complained.
A handful of CBC members have approached the leadership, not to blame them for their members' losses, but to request meetings, even a retreat, to help ease the growing tensions between the Jewish and black factions within the party, staff members said Tuesday.
Fred Turner, a spokesman for Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., said his boss "has been talking to his colleagues, both black and Jewish, to make things better. We have to remind people that there is quite a bit of shared history between the two groups."
Eric Smith, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who met recently with CBC members on the matter, said there was definite agreement to clear up the tensions that exist. "He acknowledges that it would be good to continue the discussion."