Campaign aims to rally minorities behind health care overhaul

Black and Latino groups said Monday that they would begin an ad campaign aimed at urging swing state lawmakers in Congress to back overhauling health care.

Experts warned that mobilizing those communities will be difficult, but Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of the Center for Community Change, which specializes in mobilizing grass-roots campaigns, countered, “If Congress fails to deliver a robust public option that most Americans want, it’s communities of color that have the most to lose.”

His group, the NAACP, National Council of La Raza and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights designed the ads to highlight minority support for revamping health care, voices that they say were drowned out by opponents at town hall meetings and the media attention given them. The ads don’t endorse specific legislative details.

The organizers want to remind Democratic lawmakers who are facing tough midterm elections next year that the outcome of the health care debate will be a litmus test for how African-Americans and Hispanics vote.

The groups have joined forces for an ad buy of $250,000 to $500,000 that will appear on minority-oriented cable networks such as Black Entertainment Television and Univision in Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas and in African-American and Hispanic newspapers in those states.

The first ads will appear Thursday and will target moderate Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Mary Landrieu, D-La., and George LeMieux, R-Fla. Lincoln faces re-election next year and LeMieux is an interim appointment; the 2010 election will fill his seat, which Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., vacated earlier this year

The North Carolina ads will run in the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas. The Florida ads will be featured in the Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee areas.

Independent analysts were skeptical of the campaign’s potential. Other issues are foremost on voters’ minds now, said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University: “You’re trying to do this at a time when the economy is the No. 1 issue.”

Added Rupert Nacoste, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and an expert on race relations, “I sense not apathy, but uncertainty about what to get behind. So many things are moving all at once.”

Still, the minority audience appears ripe for mobilization. “When you combine that (Hispanic) bloc with the African-American voting bloc, I’m here to suggest to you that that’s a bloc of voters that can most definitely make a difference in the outcome in the election,” said Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.

Of the nonelderly population ? the elderly qualify for Medicare ? about 20.6 percent of African-Americans and 32.2 percent of Latinos had no health insurance coverage, compared with 12.7 percent of whites, according to an analysis of 2008 census data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A Pew Research Center poll Sept. 10-15 found that two-thirds of blacks said they generally favored the health care proposals that were before Congress, compared with 37 percent of whites.

Whether the black and Latino communities are ready to be mobilized is unclear, however.

“Is this going to move voters? I don’t know that it will do that,” said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.

Part of the problem is that people question whether they can afford the changes.

“People understand they may have to buy insurance or pay a penalty. But will young people, or low-income people, want to go along with that?” deHaven-Smith asked.

Congress confronts the same dilemma. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to approve its health care bill later this week, but some key senators remain concerned that requiring most people to buy coverage, or pay a penalty, will be a burden.

“I don’t think anybody likes this concept of penalties,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

“How do we achieve affordability?” asked Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. “We can reconfigure and jigger these formulas, but we don’t know.”

Even if their constituents want change in health care, Nacoste said, the issue has so many nuances, and people have so many different concerns, that mobilizing any large population is going to be difficult.

“Any attempt to appeal to minorities as monolithic is a mistake,” he said. “We keep using these old models of race and ethnicity. In the civil rights movement the issues were clear, but that world is gone now.”

The 30-second ad makes a direct link to that movement. In an English-language version, an African-American man is waiting at a bus stop. Before he and a Hispanic woman and child can get on, the door closes.

“The year I was born, they tried to reform health care. And now I’m 65 years old and it still hasn’t happened,” the man says. He ends by telling the targeted lawmaker, “There needs to be room for all of us on this bus.”

Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP’s president, warned that if health care changes aren’t adopted, his constituency will remember in next year’s elections.

“The days of Democratic senators counting black votes as if they’re golf handicaps have stopped,” Jealous said. “It may have been OK in the 1990s when we first began to debate universal coverage. It’s been 16 years, 17 years. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, many of them unnecessarily. … It’s not acceptable.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.