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Black Politics Are Big Business in New Orleans

November 14, 1991

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Buying votes is illegal. Delivering the voters isn’t.

For the candidate with money, dozens of black political groups in New Orleans can bring out the voters big-time. They plan to do this Saturday, when former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke takes on former Gov. Edwin Edwards in a racially charged election for governor.

The groups, with acronyms such as SOUL, COUP, ROOTS and LIFE, grew out of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s and are among the best organized in the nation, said Ben Jeffers, the state coordinator for the Edwards campaign.

Edwards carried New Orleans with 54 percent of the vote in the Oct. 19 primary, in which the black organizations vigorously mobilized the black vote. ″We feel that was clearly where the margin of victory came from,″ Jeffers said.

Black groups are campaigning hard for Edwards, a Democrat who topped the primary with 34 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for Duke.

They have joined with the Democratic Party, religious bodies, Jewish and anti-racism groups in opposing Duke, a maverick Republican who claims to have disavowed his past as a Klan leader.

The city probably has more than 100 black political organizations, observers say.

″There are the big organizations that are there year round, and there are smaller groups that come and go for certain issues or races,″ said political consultant Cheron Brylski.

″They’re able to help candidates in a number of ways, and it can cost from $2,500 to $100,000 or more. I’ve known campaigns that have set aside triple that amount.″

The groups don’t charge for their endorsements - which alone can be valuable - but almost everything else done for a candidate costs money.

In 1983, when Edwards ran for a third term against incumbent Republican Gov. Dave Treen, campaign aides estimated they paid $75,000 for the services of SOUL, which stands for Southern Organization for Unified Leadership and is run by state Rep. Sherman Copelin. In his book ″The Last Hayride,″ author John Maginnis quoted sources as putting the cost closer to $750,000.

″SOUL really doesn’t take any money from a candidate,″ Copelin said. ″We endorse, then it’s up to them to decide how they want to use the organization. We can do everything from phone banking to exit polls.″

Mailings top the lists of services, both in what it gives a candidate and what it costs.

″We are able to target voters very precisely, according to race, age, sex, even economic status,″ said Deslie Isidore White of COUP, or Community Organization of Urban Politics.

″It may cost $15,000 to $25,000 to print, assemble and mail our ballot, but candidates can be sure of who we are reaching.″

″We expect to have poll watchers,″ White added. ″If by 4 o’clock you haven’t voted and you are a black Democrat, you can expect a call asking if you need a ride or help getting to the polls. If by 6 you still haven’t voted, we’ll be after you again.″

Poll watchers check off voters as they enter the booth. Their lists are fed into a computer, enabling campaign workers to identify those who haven’t voted.

Churches also will play an important role in bringing out black voters. In 1987, churches rang their bells rang all day long to remind their black congregations to vote for Democrat John Breaux in the U.S. Senate race.

Blacks were upset by an attempt to purge voter registration rolls, which they viewed as a Republican effort aimed at them, and came out in force to help Breaux defeat the Republican candidate, former U.S. Rep. Henson Moore.

″This time we’re going to be ringing bells again,″ said the Rev. Zebadee Bridges, president of the political arm of the Interdenominational Association of Black Ministers.

″This time though, it’s going to be phone bells and door bells we’re ringing. We are going to be on the streets getting people to the polls.″