in SC Democrats regroup for Black Vote

Here’s a great article from Jason George for the Chicago Tribune.

DILLON, S.C.—When it comes to fixing South Carolina’s “Corridor of Shame,” a counties-long strip of underfunded, underperforming and mostly black schools, all three Democratic front-runners possess some life experience that could qualify them as the region’s much-needed savior.

Sen. Barack Obama has a history of helping poor, minority communities as an organizer. Sen. Hillary Clinton once worked to improve the educational options for rural Arkansas students. And John Edwards, who was born in a South Carolina mill village, has made fighting poverty the central issue of his 2008 presidential bid.

No matter who eventually wins the White House, though—Democrat or Republican—the victor will have his or her work cut out. Consider, for example, Dillon’s J.V. Martin Junior High School, where if the students want a real-life history lesson, they need look no further than their old crumbling campus, a cluster of leaky, drafty buildings—the first built in 1896.

The archaic infrastructure is not the only thing in need of repair here: A third of Martin’s 560 middle schoolers read at three or more grades below level. About 10 percent of those 7th and 8th graders cannot identify all the letters of the alphabet.

As the presidential campaign migrates south and west, with far more diverse populations than Iowa and New Hampshire, the issues that drive the campaign are changing. In South Carolina, for the first time, the Democratic candidates will have their fates determined by the party’s most loyal constituency of the last 50 years: African-Americans. And in a state where half of Democratic voters are black and many are highly interested in improving South Carolina’s failing schools, the issues of race, education and poverty prove hot topics leading up to the Jan. 26 Democratic primary.

To many African-American voters here, Obama at last seems a viable and potentially historic candidate. Such supporters say Obama will help them best, pointing to his community activist work in Chicago as a sign that he’s serious about improving places like Dillon.

“He could’ve been with the biggest law firms in the country, but he chose to make a difference and become an organizer,” said Milton Richardson, 41, who spent Saturday socializing with friends at the Garden Court apartments, a few blocks behind J.V. Martin.

Friend Johnnie Sico, 35, disagreed, saying Clinton, and her husband, the former president, are the ones with the proven history of helping black voters.

“He moved to Harlem!” Sico said of Bill Clinton’s offices, as friends nodded in agreement.

It’s a position that Clinton surrogates also echo in South Carolina, where Clinton has picked up numerous endorsements from black Palmetto State power brokers.

“The Corridor of Shame is just like what she did with the Children’s Defense Fund; she is not a Johnny-come-lately,” said Robert Ford, a black state senator from Charleston.

Ford was referring to Clinton’s first job out of Yale University — the starting point of Clinton’s “35 years of experience,” which also includes co-founding the Arkansas Advocates for Children. It’s a track record that her African-American supporters say hints at how she’ll help South Carolina schools, if elected.

The political divide in the African-American community can be seen within the family of Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Greenville, S.C., native who won the state’s Democratic presidential primary in 1984 and 1988. While Jackson has yet to campaign for either candidate, his son, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, has canvassed and cut a radio ad for Obama.

“Once, South Carolina voted for my father, and sent a strong message to the nation,” the younger Jackson says in the ad airing on gospel and R&B stations. “Next year, you can send more than a message: You can launch a president.”

His mother, Jacqueline Jackson, wants to launch a president, too, but a different one: “Hillary believes that the way we treat our children reflects our nation’s values,” says her dueling ad.

This debate is a welcome development after state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, where minority concerns were rarely addressed, said Dr. Lonnie Randolph, Jr., president of the South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP.

“We can’t accuse either of them or John Edwards of discriminating in their outreach to African-American voters in South Carolina, and they shouldn’t—every vote counts,” he said. “I think it’s great to have the candidates here, speaking on this issue.”

Jackson’s victories in South Carolina could be a precursor of a strong showing by Obama, said Cleveland Sellers, director of the African-American studies program at the University of South Carolina.
>>Read the rest here

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