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Bloc Voting a Reality at the Ballot Box

The Miami Herald

September 8, 1998

© 1998 The Miami Herald.

By TOM FIEDLER, Herald Political Editor

  On paper, at least, John Plummer was a political pioneer, a black man from South Miami who won election to the Florida House of Representatives in a district that was overwhelmingly white. Until that election in 1980, no black in the state had accomplished such a feat in nearly a century.

  In reality, Plummer may be remembered for something much less noble: A political trick.

  This former school bus driver owned one of Miami-Dade County's most famous names, thanks to Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer and then-state Sen. Larry Plummer. They, however, happened to be white.

  John Plummer adopted as his slogan: "The family name Plummer speaks for itself.'' He refused to have his picture taken or to be interviewed by reporters. He declined speaking invitations. His race was never mentioned in the media.

Plummer's victory became a joke on those who elected him.

  But it made a serious point. When voters in that legislative district thought Plummer was white, he won; when they found out the truth, he lost. The lesson: Without chicanery, minority candidates in South Florida who seek the votes of people of different ethnic or racial heritage are almost doomed to fail.

  With only rare exceptions, Cuban Americans tend to vote Cuban-American, blacks to vote for blacks, Jews to vote for Jews (or names they think are Jewish), and so it goes.

  "People do it because they're very comfortable with people of their own ethnicity,'' said Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor at Florida International University. He once tested the process as a black man running for mayor of predominately white Miami. He lost.

  Ethnicity and race - especially race - are important factors in campaigns all over the country. But in few other communities outside South Florida are political decisions so guided by whether a candidate happens to be Cuban or black or "Anglo,'' the catch-all term for whites who aren't Hispanic. (Only in Miami, jokes Arthur Teitelbaum, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, "can a Jew become an Anglo.'')

  Not only are campaigns multiethnic and multiracial, they're also often bilingual - and, with the growth of the Haitian-American community's impact, tending toward trilingual. The candidate who doesn't reflect the electorate on those demographic traits starts at a deep disadvantage regardless of such other factors as experience, education or stands on the issues.

  "We know that people will vote for the person closest to them,'' Dunn said. "And the less detail they know about the candidate, the more important ethnicity or race is in making that vote.''

Bias acknowledged

  Many voters admit to this bias. A recent Herald/NBC 6 poll found that a majority of only one group - white non-Hispanics - said that a candidate's race or ethnicity is ``not at all important'' in casting their ballots.

  More than half the ethnic-Cuban voters, and nearly three-fifths of blacks, said race or ethnicity was either very or somewhat important. Just a third of the white non-Hispanic voters shared that view, although some experts question the truthfulness of that response.

  "American politics approaches ethnicity with a real sense of disdain,'' said John Stack, a professor of public policy at Florida International University. "We're a nation of immigrants so we're not supposed to be affected by it. But of course we are.''

  Sociologists say that ethnic and racial voting grows directly out of the presumption that the voter shares some personal experiences with the candidate. In Miami, especially among blacks, that's often true.

Segregation's impact

  "I think this is rooted in patterns of segregation that operate on a day-to-day level,'' said University of Miami sociologist George Wilson. "Residential segregation is especially powerful. It structures who you become friends with, what your opportunities are, where your children may be educated and where you work.''

  Miami-Dade County's residential patterns, which often divide along racial and ethnic lines, reinforce such attitudes, Wilson said.

  "The political beliefs flow from these other spheres,'' he said.

  Language is another factor that tends to divide the electorate along political lines. Not only does the Hispanic candidate have a natural bond with Hispanic voters, but a non-Hispanic challenger who can't speak Spanish has little access to the Little Havana radio stations that are so influential in local races.

  Also, federal laws that provide Hispanics and blacks with specially drawn districts have the effect of dividing the community. In effect, the laws require that legislators draw districts in ways that maximize the voting strength of Spanish speakers and blacks, creating "black seats'' and "Hispanic seats.''

  As a result, bloc voting is inevitable in races for Congress, the Legislature, county commission, school board and within many municipalities.

  Some experts regard such laws as a necessary bulwark to counteract the historic unwillingness of a majority group - usually whites - to vote for minorities.

  "Without this, minorities would find themselves in a Catch-22 when they try to run for high office,'' said Keith Reeves, an associate professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and an expert on racial politics.

  "People say they won't support a minority candidate who doesn't have the credentials to go for high office,'' Reeves said, "so there has to be a protected place where the minorities can get those credentials.''

A cultural divide

  In South Florida, even having those credentials seems secondary to race and ethnicity. The 1995 Miami-Dade mayoral race turned almost entirely on demographic lines as Hispanic voters backed Alex Penelas and black voters sided with Arthur Teele Jr. - despite the fact that Penelas, the son of Cuban parents, is a Democrat and Teele, who is black, a Republican.

  Meanwhile, turnout among white non-Hispanic voters was dismally low.

  "It was classic bloc voting,'' said political consultant Robert Levy. "The [white non-Hispanics] didn't feel they had a stake in the outcome.''

  Although exceptions are rare, some politicians have demonstrated the ability to cut across racial or ethnic lines. In a 1984 county mayor's race, the predominately Jewish voters in Northeast Dade, who then controlled countywide elections by their heavy turnout and bloc vote, backed Steve Clark, an Irish Catholic, over Ruth Shack, who was Jewish. The reason:

  "Clark practically made himself Jewish,'' Levy said. "He went to Israel more times than most Jews. He could tell you inch by inch what's on the Wailing Wall.

"Unfortunately,'' Levy added, "you can't make yourself more Hispanic or more African American.''

  Some may dispute that. In a 1993 County Commission race in a district dominated by Little Havana, candidate Bruce Kaplan, who was Jewish, defeated Cuba-born Conchy Bretos. Kaplan was aided by his fluent Spanish. But he also attacked Bretos as being soft on Fidel Castro and thus "not a real Cuban.''

Kept race out of campaign

  One of the few blacks to succeed in a white district has been state Sen. Daryl Jones of South Dade. Jones won election to the state House in 1990 in a district that was more than 70 percent white.

  He attributed his success to simply ignoring race and concentrating on his credentials, which included graduating from the Air Force Academy, serving as a fighter pilot and earning a law degree at the University of Miami.

  "I made a conscious decision to assume throughout the campaign that people of my district wanted to get the best-qualified person. I decided I was not going to bring the issue of race into my campaign.''

  Reeves, the Harvard political scientist, believes voters will similarly ignore race as long as the candidate and the media do also.

  "Of course people will know about race, but as the campaign progresses, people will move on to other issues as long as they aren't constantly reminded of it,'' he said.

  It is important also that the candidate puts together a multiracial or multiethnic campaign, Reeves said.

  Ultimately, the political barriers will disappear only when the societal barriers do, according to the experts. And that time may be coming, although slowly.

  "Society seems to be moving away from racial and ethnic matters,'' said Dunn, the FIU psychologist. "That is the overall trend. Politics may trail it, but eventually it will be swept along with it.

  " think my children - and certainly their children - won't be making their voting decisions along racial and ethnic lines.''




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