Kerry courts black vote, vows to pressure Castro
BY LESLEY CLARK
Sen. John Kerry sought to court important South Florida voting constituencies in a campaign swing Sunday, taking to the pulpit of a Liberty City church to evoke the 2000 election and claims of lost black votes, and assailing President Bush's crackdown on Cuba travel.
Flanked by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and one-time rival Al Sharpton -- both of whom turned a lively morning service at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City into a blistering indictment of the Bush administration -- Kerry sought to galvanize the black vote he needs to turn out in force in November.
''What's on the ballot is the American dream, what's on the ballot is what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton marched for,'' Kerry said. ``We have an unfinished march in this nation.''
After his appearance, Kerry met with The Herald's editorial board for a wide-ranging interview in which he assailed Bush's policies in the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere. He accused the administration of ignoring Latin America and Haiti and said that as president, he would work with U.S. allies that do business in Cuba to bring pressure on Fidel Castro.
''Our ability to remove Castro is going to be by earning the respect of other nations to begin to get tough,'' Kerry said. ``Every other country, the Germans, the French, others, have been buying property in Cuba, playing games. There's no concentrated focus on [Castro's] repressive anti-human rights behavior, and there should be. But because the U.S. has isolated itself, in a way, we've lost the legitimate pressure that ought to be brought on him.''
Moving to shore up his Cuban-American base that wants to see the United States tighten the noose on Castro, Bush several months ago cut back on how much money Cubans could send to family members on the island and how often they could visit.
But Democrats believe there is an emerging division in the once reliably Republican Cuban-American voting bloc, and Kerry on Sunday argued that Bush's restrictions will punish families while isolating dissidents on the island.
''It's counterproductive to the kind of exchange of information we need,'' Kerry said. ``To shut it off is to empower Castro, and frankly I think that's a huge mistake.''
Polls suggest that most Cuban Americans back increasingly restrictive policies against Cuba, and Republicans have assailed Kerry for once deriding the trade embargo against the island as a "function of Florida politics.''
Kerry looked to cast himself in the hourlong interview as staunchly anti-Castro, calling the Cuban leader a ''brutal dictator'' and noting that on a trip to Cuba, he declined to meet with Castro at "one of those one o'clock in the morning seances with Castro -- for him to sit around and play that game.''
Kerry said he would encourage ''principled travel'' to the island -- cultural and educational exchanges, as well as visits by family members, calling it ``those kinds of things that really help open the door to new ideas, to alternatives and to transition.''
Kerry also criticized the Bush administration for what he said was a slow reaction to crises in Haiti and accused Bush of squandering an opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East.
Republicans have worked assiduously to court traditionally Democratic-leaning Jewish voters.
But Kerry argued that he had a 20-year voting record in the Senate on behalf of Israel.
''For 14 to 16 months, they were just not involved at all,'' Kerry said. "And rather than hold some of the Arab countries accountable for their support of terror, money is still flowing to terrorists. They just haven't been engaged.''
SAFETY OF ISRAEL
He argued that Bush's focus on Iraq has made Israel less safe.
''Iran has moved closer to having nuclear weapons because he hasn't done anything,'' Kerry said.
He repeated charges that the administration rushed to war in Iraq and pledged to repair U.S. relationships with allies that he said have been ``shredded by this president.''
Kerry also accused Bush's campaign of hitting ''every hot button, culturally and ideologically, that you can find to punch,'' a theme echoed earlier at his church visit, where he and Jackson urged black voters to focus on jobs and healthcare and not be misled by appeals to social issues like gay marriage, which most black voters oppose.
At the church, Jackson and Sharpton repeatedly assailed Bush for his policies and the contentious 2000 election, in which thousands of black voters complained that their votes were discarded. The disputed election remains a rallying cry -- particularly among black voters, who have been slow to warm to Kerry, but whose strong support could turn the Florida vote.
Kerry pledged a legal team, led by former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer,to watch for voting disparities.
''Never again will a million African Americans be denied the right to exercise their vote in the United States of America,'' Kerry declared from the pulpit, mixing parts of his standard stump speech with quotes from the Bible and religious parables.
The expressions of faith from Kerry, a Catholic, come as Republicans woo religious conservatives with social issues like abortion, limits on embryonic stem-cell research and a proposal to outlaw gay marriage. Kerry is opposed to same-sex marriage, but has been critical of Bush's effort to put a ban on it into the U.S. Constitution.
When Jackson asked congregants to raise their hands if they had faced job discrimination, had a family member with cancer or in jail, or were in need of a ''livable wage,'' hands popped up. But when he asked if they had a family member married to someone of the same sex, the congregants only looked at each other and tittered. Not a single hand rose.
ON THE AGENDA
''Then how did that get in the middle of the agenda?'' Jackson asked. ``If your issues are cancer and Medicare and education and jobs and Social Security and decent housing, then how did someone else put their agenda in the front of the line?''
Kerry began the day at a more sedate service -- receiving Communion at a morning Mass at St. James Catholic Church in North Miami, which holds services in English, Spanish and Creole.
His aides said it was a personal visit, but as he left, Kerry was mobbed by the crowd.
The Rev. Jean Pierre didn't mention Kerry by name, but noted that officials of the Miami-Dade County election office will be at the church next week with electronic voting machines that replaced the infamous punch-card machines of the 2000 election.
He urged the congregation to take voting seriously. ''I would even say religiously,'' he said.