Joe Lieberman is in big trouble in the African American community.
Five days after a tense meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, Lieberman Monday was branded a candidate with "no legitimacy" in the black community by NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.
Mfume told thousands at the NAACP convention in Miami Beach that the Connecticut Democrat and fellow 2004 presidential candidates Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich were "persona non grata" among black voters because they did not appear before the group, according to wire reports.
"Your political capital is the equivalent of confederate dollars," Mfume told the nation's most influential African American organization. The Associated Press said that each time he mentioned their names, "an organmaster played a death knell chord."
At its Virginia headquarters, Lieberman's camp strongly defended his record, and spokesman Jano Cabrera was confident the flap would subside.
"At the end of the day," Cabrera said, "no one has as strong a record or as close a personal tie to the African American community as Joe Lieberman.
"His record," said Cabrera of Lieberman, "dating back to the 1960s when he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and personally fought for the rights of African Americans to vote in Mississippi, is as strong as anyone's."
That won't be enough, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which conducts research on politics in the African American community.
"Bringing up Dr. King is no kind of ace. It wasn't like Lieberman was one of King's aides," said Bositis.
All this comes on the heels of last week's hourlong session between Lieberman and the black caucus in Washington that ended with Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., saying "basically, people were laughing at him."
In the hall, a friendly Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democratic District of Columbia delegate to Congress, also warned Lieberman to "be very careful with affirmative action. They remember," she said last week, referring to what many term an inconsistent record on the subject.
The incidents could sting Lieberman, who is counting on African American votes in key primary and caucus states.
Unlike most of his major rivals for the Democratic nomination, Lieberman is operating with a history some black leaders see as tarnished. For years, they have been wary of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group Lieberman headed for five years.
"Lieberman has long had a rocky relationship with black leaders," said Bositis.
These African American leaders often saw the leadership council as breaking faith with the party's longstanding commitment to social programs that are of particular help to poorer communities. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has derided the DLC as "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
Lieberman helped fuel that view with remarks in his first year as council chairman, when he raised questions about affirmative action.
"You can't defend policies that are based on group preferences as opposed to individual opportunities," he told a group of national reporters at the time.
When he was chosen for the 2000 presidential ticket, he underwent extensive grilling by black leaders. He proclaimed his enthusiastic support for affirmative action, and has ever since.
But suspicions linger. Lieberman had angered many black caucus members last week after being quoted as saying he would not send American troops to Liberia "unless I was convinced the country was ready for peacekeeping."
Lieberman contended the statements were taken out of context.
Then Monday, he missed the NAACP convention because of a reported agreement between several Democratic candidates that was shattered at the last moment.
There were many accounts Monday of just what happened, but it appeared four candidates - Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Gephardt, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Lieberman - agreed they would only appear together during the six debates being scheduled by the Democratic National Committee this fall.
Their feeling was there were too many such forums - June alone featured at least seven - forums that took time away from campaigning and fund-raising.
Mfume accused the four of ducking tough forums, and singled out Edwards for special criticism. A surge of black voters in 1998 was seen as propelling Edwards to his Senate victory.
Edwards Sunday night agreed to appear, and once he did, so did Kerry.
That left Lieberman, Gephardt and Kucinich as no-shows. Kucinich wanted to stay in Washington for House votes. Gephardt had a personal obligation, and Lieberman was in White Plains, N.Y., raising money.
That infuriated Mfume. "If you expect us to believe you could not find 90 minutes to come by and address the issues affecting our nation," he said, "then you have no legitimacy over the next nine months in our community."
Copyright © 2003 by The Hartford Courant