Friday, October 17, 2003

Chandler courts minority voters

He promises push on issues of concern to blacks, Hispanics

By Joe Biesk
The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Democrat Ben Chandler on Thursday promised he would be a "loud voice" for minorities in Kentucky and said as governor he would work to empower all people in the state.

He said he would push for equality and increase the number of minority businesses that get state contracts. He also said he would push issues particularly of concern to the black and Hispanic communities, such as creating an office of minority health affairs.

"I will fight for more jobs, for better health care, better schools, safer streets for all Kentuckians, no matter what neighborhood you call home, the size of your bank account or the color of your skin," Chandler said. "I believe in equal opportunity for all."

Chandler met with a group of supporters Thursday afternoon in a park at Dunbar Community Center in Lexington. He promised to bridge the "digital divide" and improve health care for minorities.

Chandler also criticized his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher who was in Washington, and claimed the congressman votes against minority issues.

Fletcher spokesman Wes Irvin said the congressman has a record of reaching out to the minority community. Fletcher would be more responsive than Chandler to Kentucky's minority residents, Irvin said.

"Historically, Democrats over the past years have given nothing but empty promises to the minority community," Irvin said.

So far, Chandler said his campaign has done "a lot of things" to attract minority voters through minority campaign coordinators and by visiting groups throughout the state.

"We certainly want the African-American community in this state to understand how important we believe they are," Chandler said.

Chandler also said he would expand the Governor's Minority Student College Preparation program and help "bring safety and justice" to neighborhoods throughout the state.

Fletcher would also work to promote black-owned businesses, improve the handling of minority contracts and "focus on economic empowerment," Irvin said.

"It all goes back to two major areas for Ernie and that is making sure the education is accessible and available and there's access to quality health care," Irvin said. "They're areas that Ernie is prepared to improve upon."

Irvin said Fletcher's campaign has a staff worker who specializes in African-American outreach and the congressman has met with minority groups throughout the state.

While both candidates claim they will help minority residents, neither has had much substance in their campaigns concerning their issues, said the Rev. Louis Coleman, head of the Justice Resource Center in Louisville.

"It's business as usual as far as the governor's race," Coleman said. "Once again we have the choice of voting between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. What they have done, both of them, they have really sparked our interest into making sure that we have a third party in place."

Coleman said neither Chandler nor Fletcher has focused on talking about the needs of "everyday poor people." They have not focused enough on environmental issues facing the black community either, Coleman said.

"They never get down, put the hands in the area where the people are hurting the most," Coleman said.

Chandler disagreed.

"I don't think that's accurate," Chandler said.

Irvin also disagreed.

"That's disappointing to hear because Ernie has consistently said that the minority community has been given nothing but empty promises from the Democratic Party," Irvin said. "Ernie has been accessible. ... He's reached out to them."

Still, Raoul Cunningham, a former state NAACP official, said he didn't think Chandler's plan focused on all the issues affecting blacks and other minority groups in Kentucky.

Specifically, Cunningham said, the plan was "short on specifics" and did not touch on agricultural issues, capital punishment and voting rights for convicted felons who have finished serving their sentences. Other topics candidates have not addressed, Cunningham said, include election reforms and the high cost of housing.

"It is better than Fletcher has done, but I'm not sure that this is going to produce the turnout that (Chandler) needs," Cunningham said.

Cunningham estimated there are about 135,000 registered black voters in Kentucky. And neither candidate has "energized the African-American" voters, he said.

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