Courting Minorities, Kerry Promises Expanded College Access

New York Times
July 13, 2004

PHOENIX, June 29 - Hoping to energize minority voters, Senator John Kerry promised blacks and Hispanics on Tuesday that he would expand access to college, and he delivered a forceful new answer to Republican charges that he is running a campaign of pessimism.

"This administration says this is the best economy of our lifetime," he told the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago. "They say this is the best that we can do. They've even called us pessimists because we dared to tell the truth about the people without health care" and about shortcomings in the Bush administration's education and prescription-drug initiatives, he said.

"Well, I say, the most pessimistic thing that you can say is that we can't do better in the United States of America," Mr. Kerry continued, trying out a new rhetorical riff.

The Rainbow/PUSH gathering was the same event where, in June 1992, Bill Clinton infuriated the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the group's leader, by questioning why the rap artist Sister Souljah had been invited to speak after making remarks about killing white people.

By contrast, Mr. Kerry said nothing to antagonize his hosts. In a race where both parties are seeking to energize their base, he is courting the same strong minority support that Mr. Clinton and Al Gore enjoyed but has been criticized for not having enough minority representation in senior positions in his campaign.

On Saturday, after Mr. Kerry spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, its director, Arturo Vargas, repeated that complaint, saying, "I don't think either campaign has done well enough to date, frankly." On Tuesday, Mr. Kerry had two recent African-American hires along for the trip: Terry Edmonds, his director of speechwriting, who held the same job in the Clinton White House, and Brian Burke, a domestic policy adviser. Later in Phoenix, he named Jose Villareal, a San Antonio lawyer who is chairman of La Raza, a leading Hispanic group, as a national co-chairman of his campaign.

In his Chicago speech, Mr. Kerry worked hard to assure the Rainbow/PUSH audience that he was sincere.

"I'm wary about standing up in front of you," he said, "because I know there's a cynicism. I know you're tired of the words. So am I."

He said he understood that many blacks believed politicians listened to them only in election years. "What happens afterwards?" he asked. "They sort of feel they disappear. Broken promises have been broken so often, it's hard for people to summon up that inside, psychic energy necessary to go out and make a difference.

"Let me tell you something: People are different in this business," he said. "There are some of us who keep our word."

He said he could do more than Mr. Bush on the economy and education.

"Don't tell us that two million lost jobs is the best we can do," he said. "Don't tell us overcrowded schools and underpaid teachers are the best that we can do. We can do better - and we will."

Mr. Kerry also recalled the disputed 2000 presidential election: "And don't tell us that it is the best we can do when in the last election, two million votes weren't even counted," he said. "Don't tell us that people who are harassed and intimidated from going to the polls, something we thought we resolved in the 1960's, and it still happens in the dawn of the 21st century; don't tell us that.

"We can do better, and we will do better this time," he said, bringing most of the crowd to its feet.

Mr. Kerry used the Chicago speech, and one later in Phoenix at the convention of the National Council of La Raza, to unveil proposals to help educate more highly skilled workers, particularly in the sciences, and to increase the rate at which all students, but especially minorities and women, graduate from college.

"In an era when college graduates will earn $900,000 more than high school graduates over the course of a career," he said, "less than a third of all Americans have a four-year college degree, and less than a fifth of all African-Americans do."

He promised to spend $300 million to encourage girls and members of minority groups to study science and math in programs like all-girls math and science schools and to double the $95 million budgeted for National Science Foundation graduate scholarships. Mr. Kerry also said he would require colleges to report annual figures on the number of minority, low-income and middle-income students enrolling and graduating, and make available $100 million in incentives to colleges that raise graduation rates of low-income students receiving Pell Grants.