Former NBA player Charles Barkley established himself as a truth-teller long before the term became vogue.
His controversial "I am not a role model" commercial drew a mix of outrage and support during his playing days, and his critical eye serves him so well as an NBA analyst for TNT that rival network ESPN also gives him airtime.
So when CNN handed Barkley a microphone after Democrat Doug Jones was declared the winner in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race Tuesday night, it didn’t come as a surprise that Barkley cut to the heart of the matter with an unvarnished comment.
"This is a wake-up call for Democrats," Barkley said. "The Democrats — and I told Mr. Jones this, and I love Doug — they’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It’s time they get off their a-- and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor.
"They’ve always had our votes and they have abused our votes and this is a wake-up call. This is a wake up call for Democrats to do better for black people and poor white people."
It’s true that Democrats have long been out of power in Alabama, and thus somewhat handicapped in moving policies forward that could create a stronger safety net, address social injustice and restore the rights of felons. The comments don’t capture the complexities of modern government.
Still, they should resonate in Florida. Barkley’s outcry reflects the frustration many blacks feel about constantly voting Democrat and not seeing enough change in their neighborhoods. President Barack Obama’s biggest critics insist he didn’t do enough to help the poorest African-American communities, and the sentiment contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss.
While the Alabama race involved a truly unique set of circumstances, it does appear to offer lessons for both parties. The GOP would be wise to make an earnest effort to cut into the Democrats’ advantage, and the Democrats have to realize if they hope to gain greater power in the Florida Legislature, it has to come up with new and innovative ways to turn out the black vote in 2018.
Historically, black voter turnout has been significantly lower in non-presidential election years. The phenomenon helps explain how Obama carried this state in 2008 and 2012 but state Democrats failed to move the needle in 2010, 2014 and even 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t generate the same degree of energy.
Yet in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race, black voters were credited with turning out in huge numbers and voting for Jones. Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report tweeted Tuesday that turnout in Alabama counties with a sizable black population was at three-fourths of what it was in the 2016 presidential election — remarkable for a special election involving only one race.
Jones made a concerted effort to win the black vote, parading through churches and campaigning with national figures like Cory Booker, the U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Here in Florida, Democratic candidates would be wise to replicate such efforts while looking to build a coalition that crosses race and includes independents. Some past state candidates have struck me as trying to create a moderate balance that would have allowed them to cull votes in the Panhandle, but outside of U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, the approach has come up short.
For me, the debate about black voter turnout stings a little. The history of the Civil Rights movement — the lives lost and the blood shed — should be more than enough to drive every adult to the polls. I’m frustrated those sacrifices don’t motivate.
Yet as the memories of the movement fade for a new generation, it’s clear a new approach is needed to overturn apathy.
They must be convinced voting makes a difference in their lives, and it has to go beyond bad-mouthing the opponent.
In the end, we can’t simply demand that people vote. They have to be inspired — no matter what party they support — to believe in the process, and engage it throughout the cycle, not just on Election Day.
Some may object to Barkley’s choice of words, but if they sleep on his assessment, they may wake up to a much more grim reality.
That’s all I’m saying.