Cover Story

Miami vice

It was Democrats, not Republicans, who intimidated voters and broke the law

Issue: "A legal coup?," Nov. 25, 2000

in Miami-Dade County, Fla.-While Jesse Jackson during the week following Election Day raged before cameras about Miami blacks purportedly prevented from voting, Reggie Thompson was shaking his head. Mr. Thompson, a conservative Republican who ran for state representative in northeast Miami-Dade County, is also black, and he said of Mr. Jackson's claim, "That's hogwash. The opposite is true." He argued that Democrats "were intimidating people and violating the law." Part of the problem was a long-standing Republican failure to fight for some urban voters. On Nov. 7 no Republicans were campaigning for candidates at most polling sites in largely black areas of Miami. Gore signs blanketed the landscape; motorists on U.S. 1 saw Gore signs practically every five feet for three miles. Scores of Gore campaigners wore T-shirts and held signs. No Bush supporters, but up to a dozen Gore advocates, campaigned outside the typical polling place in largely black areas. Democrats paid poll partisans between $60 and $100 for their day's work; the Bush camp tried to elicit volunteers and found no takers. But questionable or illegal Democratic activities added insult to the GOP's self-inflicted injury. At one polling site, as candidate Thompson's wife Karen watched, Gore supporters guarded the entrance of the polling site, telling voters for whom they should vote. Florida election law requires that people campaigning for candidates stay at least 50 feet outside the entrance of the polling place. Mrs. Thompson tried to have the law enforced: "I said, 'you better get them out of there.' But the poll worker inside wouldn't do it. He let them stay there." In late afternoon, after the Gore campaigners pressured hundreds of voters, Miami-Dade police officers arrived and told the campaigners to leave. Another supporter of Mr. Thompson, Annie Betancourt, handed out campaign literature to people on their way to the polls, but Gore supporters several times grabbed the fliers from her hands. Regularly, she says, they also yanked the fliers from voters, and then crumpled and threw away the paper while blasting her verbally. Democrats succeeded in getting out a high black turnout not only with the goal of winning the presidential and senatorial races, but to establish their dominance among a new block of voters, Haitian-Americans, some of whom have recently become citizens; others are permanent residents who also often came to Florida from Canada or New York. Reggie Thompson had entered the race with the hope that by talking about issues like abortion, he could change people's minds. He had campaigned in Haitian churches and gone door to door on Saturdays with teams of volunteers. It was the first time a Republican had actively campaigned in that section of northeast Miami, and the first time many residents of the area had ever met a Republican. "How can you be a Republican?" residents at community meetings and on the front steps of their homes asked Mr. Thompson. "Most people I talked to had never heard about the issues before," including pro-life and economic ones, he said: "They never thought about it, and no one had ever presented it to them." Many residents have been taught since they were children to vote Democratic, yet Mr. Thompson believes he made a lot of people stop, think, and perhaps in a future election vote Republican, if they are freed from intimidation: "But when we saw what went on Tuesday, I don't know how we can overcome that." One way to begin overcoming that would be for Republicans to throw resources into urban areas that are likely to produce few votes immediately-but if an education effort is not begun now, four and eight and 16 years from now the same problems are likely to exist. Mr. Thompson, along with some other Republicans who are black, is forming a group called The Underground Railroad, with the goal of delivering African Americans from the bonds of liberalism. He said, based on his experience, "it's not the case that the Republican Party has a communication problem with blacks. Because to have a problem, you have to have communication. But there is no communication." In the meantime, Mrs. Thompson is left with the sour taste of what often happens when one-party rule goes unchecked. "What they did out there on Tuesday ruined the integrity of voting. I was always taught the importance of voting, and what they did out there just ruined it."

-Margaret Menge is a Florida journalist

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