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Rod Watson: Clerk opening could test Democrats' alliance with blacks

One reason Democrats will vacate the White House is that the black vote they count on did not materialize in the same numbers or percentages as in the Obama coalition. Blacks made up less of the electorate and – despite Donald Trump’s rhetoric – were fed up enough to give the Republican a bigger share of their vote.

Apparently, you can only take people for granted for so long.

There’s a lesson in that for Democrats as the party contemplates who to push for Erie County clerk when incumbent Chris Jacobs assumes his State Senate seat Jan. 1.

Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – who could appoint an acting clerk or let voters fill the post – might take note as four names, ranging from county legislators to a former TV anchor, initially surfaced. All are white. County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner also might pay attention.

Zellner points to blacks the party has backed since he took over four years ago and said he doesn’t hear criticism "of the Democratic Party not supporting African-Americans."

But the critics are out there. They note, for instance, that there are no black federal judges here, despite recent openings. The president nominated candidates put forth by senior senator and fellow Democrat Charles Schumer, who tapped four whites.

They also note the many times City Court Judge James A.W. McLeod has been bypassed by the party for a State Supreme Court nod.

And they point to the scarcity of blacks in the Cabinet of County Executive Mark Poloncarz – also a Democrat.

"It’s a perfect example of one party taking the black vote for granted and the other party ignoring it," said one black Republican. A Democrat blames black elected officials – with the exception of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and County Legislator Betty Jean Grant – for not pressing the issue, and said until they do, "we’ll continue to settle for peanuts."

Zellner disagrees, pointing to party backing for State Supreme Court Justice E. Jeanette Ogden, City Court judges Barbara Johnson Lee and Jaharr Pridgen, and even Grant for State Senate against an incumbent Democrat in 2014, though that endorsement was part of an intra-party fight.

Zellner said the party would seriously consider Janique Curry, MWBE compliance coordinator for the Erie County Medical Center who said she’s been approached by business people to run for clerk and is pondering it. He also cited party interest in former FBI administrator Bernard Tolbert for sheriff next year. Both are black.

"We work hard to make sure we (represent) a diverse community," Zellner said.

Not everyone is buying the party line. If someone like Trump can pick off black votes with a simple "What the hell do you have to lose?" imagine what might happen if Republicans made a serious effort to attract black voters instead of stopping them from voting.

Even so – and despite Democrats’ election-year pilgrimages to black churches – more young African-Americans, like those skeptical of the Clintons, seem ready to question what they have gotten for their loyalty.

Who gets backed for high-profile posts like county clerk could be one barometer they use when deciding if the Democratic Party is as supportive of blacks as blacks have been of the party.



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