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Ohio's black voters hail Obama

Associated Press
Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones introduces her choice for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, this month.

Associated Press Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones introduces her choice for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, this month.

CLEVELAND — The morning sun breaks through the stained glass at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, painting stripes of light on a group of congregants seated in deep wooden pews.

More than 200 men and women move gently to the choir's hymn. The talk is about God. And Barack Obama.

"I'm sure you read the endorsement the Plain Dealer gave to Barack Obama," said the Rev. John Engram, beginning his sermon. "That's exciting to me.

"The Teamsters have decided to back Barack Obama this past week. And that's exciting to me. … I'm excited for the possibility of having a black man become the next president. That's exciting to me."

Across the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of East Cleveland, the largest African-American community in the state, black voters have become ensnared by the possibility of a historic Obama presidency.

Where that leaves Hillary Rodham Clinton and her top surrogate in the area is a decidedly different story.

Counting on a victory in Ohio to keep her presidential campaign alive, Clinton has the coveted endorsement of the state's only African-American member of Congress, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

But not much else.

And that narrows an already thin margin for error when Ohio votes Tuesday. Clinton's 20-point lead in the state three weeks ago has shrunk in half, according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, and African-American voters overwhelming are supporting Obama.

As the two-hour Sunday service finished at Olivet, a man in the back announced that he had a gift for members. Earle B. Turner, the city's court clerk, made a special stop to deliver Obama hand fans.

Within three minutes they were gone.

At odds with district

Being black, and backing Clinton, is not an easy choice.

Tubbs Jones, Ohio's first African-American female ever elected to Congress, has been put in the awkward position of campaigning against the first viable black presidential candidate in history — a decision that also put her at odds with many African-American supporters in her Cleveland congressional district.

At a recent event with Clinton in Cleveland, and again during a nationally televised interview on MSNBC, Tubbs Jones said Obama does not have the experience or track record to become president.

"I go to church on Sunday morning for inspiration," said Tubbs Jones, 58, who was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 and is a former Cuyahoga County prosecutor. "But when I go to work on Monday I want a leader that'll step right up and do what's necessary to make a difference on behalf of the people of America."

Larry Wallace, a 50-year-old Cuyahoga County bailiff, said he knows one person in his neighborhood voting for Clinton next Tuesday.

His congresswoman.

"There is pressure on her right this minute to change her mind," Wallace said. "She's well aware of the potential ramifications. She's well aware of the pressure.

"The tide is stronger and will roll over whoever comes out for Hillary," he added. "This is a historic time and a historic moment."

In Ohio, African-Americans make up about 12 percent of registered Democrats, but are expected to account for 18 percent of the electorate March 4.

Clinton officials believe Tubbs Jones, who is a national co-chair of the campaign, can help siphon some African-American voters away from Obama. She has pledged to support Clinton no matter the outcome of the primary in Ohio, or in her congressional district, where 56 percent of voters are black.

"We have no better friend in her than we do anywhere in the country," said Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson. "She's been a fabulously supportive member of Congress and very wise guide through Ohio politics."

And it may not matter

It's difficult to see Tubbs Jones making that much of a difference, said Dan Coffey, an assistant political science professor at the University of Akron and a fellow at the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. She doesn't have the same broad appeal that Gov. Charlie Crist has, for instance, in Florida.

And her voice may be effectively countered by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, an African-American supporting Obama.

"She's (Clinton's) link to the battleground state and because most of the African-American population is concentrated around Cleveland, her endorsement would mean a great deal here potentially," Coffey said. "But then again, you have had some very prominent African-Americans campaigning for Hillary and that didn't carry a great deal of weight."

Clinton campaign officials say they have staffed offices in each of the state's 18 congressional districts, and are making more than 10,000 phone calls to supporters a day. They are not ceding any territory to Obama, including Tubbs Jones' East Cleveland 11th Congressional District.

They did, however, sidestep questions about the campaign's expectations there.

Anecdotal evidence suggests an uphill battle. More than 6,000 people attended an Obama rally Saturday night in Cleveland. Large crowds have followed him throughout the state.

"If you really look back, Jesse Jackson opened the door for everyone," said Eugene Jordan, a 68-year-old commercial painter who lives in Tubbs Jones' district. "But Obama is on a mission. This is the first time I've seen people come out like this, young, old, black, white, since JFK."

At Antioch Baptist on Cedar Avenue, the church bulletin has two men pictured on its front cover: Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama.

The owners of a used car shop at E 55th Street and Cedar Avenue have spray-painted the side of their building: "Obama for President. God protect him."

And then there is Barbara Richards, an African-American resident of East Cleveland. She chuckled when asked who she was supporting for president.

"Barack Obama," she said after the laughs wore off. "Of course."

Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

. fast facts

Eyes on Ohio

Ohio's 7.8-million registered voters will have the option Tuesday to vote in either the Democratic or Republican presidential primary. Among Democrats, the candidates are vying for 162 delegates:

• 92 based on the results in the state's 18 congressional districts.

• 49 based on statewide results.

• 21 unpledged superdelegates.

Sources: Ohio secretary of state, Ohio Democratic Party

Ohio's black voters hail Obama 02/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 12:46am]

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