The Democratic candidate in Alabama's Senate race is reaching out to black voters as Election Day approaches.
Speaking at the scene of the one of the climactic confrontations of the civil rights movement, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones on Saturday again made his pitch that Alabama's black and white voters have unified concerns that he can best represent.
"They face more issues in common," Jones said after walking during Selma's Christmas parade. "They face issues of health care, they face issues of education, they face issues of jobs."
Trying to be the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 25 years is an uphill fight for Jones, a white attorney with working-class roots who has to gain the support of both white and black voters.
Jones needs to peel away moderate GOP support from the deeply conservative Roy Moore, who has maintained a dedicated evangelical following, despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against underage girls. But black voters are key to any hopes the Democrats have of victory. The 23 percent of registered voters who are African-American are the bedrock of the Alabama's Democratic party, and a poor turnout by those voters could sink Jones.
Voting and voting rights are ever-present in Selma, which lives daily with the legacy of 1965's Bloody Sunday, when state troopers beat civil rights demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Televised scenes of those beatings galvanized national opinion and helped spur Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Jones walked past the west end of the bridge Saturday, across the Alabama River from where the confrontation took place.
African-Americans in Dallas County are heavily Democratic. But it's unclear if black residents of Selma and Alabama will be energized to vote for Jones in the numbers he needs. Some voters Saturday said they were turned off by the campaign's conflict, and weren't sure whether Jones would be able to have an impact in Republican-controlled Washington.
"Really, he probably can't do anything," said 57-year-old Lorenzo Simmons, an African-American who works at a silicon metal foundry and intends to vote for Jones. "It's probably more about the body as a whole."
Jones acknowledged that such fatalism can keep people from the polls.
"We've got to let them know that they have a partner, somebody who's going to be working for them, that's going to be a voice for them and to try to reach out to those communities," he said Saturday. "It's not an easy task with any segment of the population that gets very cynical, in this state in particular."
Aware of the odd dynamics of a special election held during the holiday season — when voters' minds are more often on football or shopping than politics — Jones' campaign has launched an effort to get out the vote that includes radio, billboards and neighborhood canvassing. The Alabama chapter of the NAACP and a collaboration of majority-black fraternities and sororities also have launched a drive aimed at getting those younger voters to the polls.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, a Democrat from Selma, said he had concerns that Jones wasn't reaching enough black voters, but believes he is doing better recently in that effort.
Partly to reach black voters, Jones has emphasized his role leading the prosecution against the two Klansmen who bombed Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four little girls.
The campaign has also specifically targeted millennial African-Americans with ads emphasizing positions on education and the economy.
Tommy Edwards, a frequent Democratic campaign volunteer in Tuscaloosa, shook hands with Jones at a barbecue restaurant after the parade. Edwards said intends to drive people to the polls.
"The black voters are going to decide this," Edwards said. "We've got to get the people to the polls."
Jones' focus on "kitchen table" issues connects better with some black voters who said they're turned off by Moore, even though in many cases they share Moore's evangelical Christian faith. Barbara Lewis of Selma said she worries about the education her grandchildren are getting in the city's public schools. Simmons said he hoped Jones could help improve the economy of rural Alabama's Black Belt, where incomes are low, unemployment is relatively high and population is shrinking. In Selma, where the median yearly household income of $22,000 is only 40 percent of the national average, the city struggles with recruiting new businesses and preventing abandonment of its grand 19th century core.
"Put some money and some business in the rural areas, the people that have been forgotten," Simmons said.
Some black Democrats, though, say multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore over the past month are motivating them. Elizabeth Engerman, a Montgomery retiree who was shopping with her father Saturday in Selma, said the accusations levied against Moore "blew me out of the water." She said friends at her beauty shop are hotly opposed to Moore, who has denied the allegations.
"We as African-Americans don't vote in these types of elections," Engerman said. "But they're coming out in droves, or at least they say they are."
Jones, for his part, continues to tell audiences that "we have more in common than we have to divide us," casting Moore as the divider.
"What we're trying to show is a stark contrast between Roy Moore and Doug Jones and I don't think the contrast can be greater. And it's really about what people want for the future of Alabama going forward, one that's divisive or one that tries to unify the people of the state."
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