Aug. 19 2009 12:00 AM

As each mayoral campaign rolls out shows of diversity, a local political consultant’s data suggests race didn’t factor in primary election voting

On Tuesday at noon in front of the Letts Community Center on Lansing’s west side, mayoral candidate and At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood held an endorsement party of sorts. Former state Rep. Michael Murphy, Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson, former mayor and Councilman Tony Benavides and Ingham County Commissioner Deb Deleon, D-Lansing, were among the diverse group of past and present elected officials who came out to endorse Wood. Last Tuesday, in front of City Hall, Mayor Virg Bernero held a similarly diverse press conference at which Charles Ford, who lost in the primary election to Wood and the mayor, endorsed Bernero.

Both press conferences featured endorsements of white candidates by minorities and, gathered around the respective podiums at each event, an array of minorities, some of whom were movers and shakers, others more behind the scenes. Ford, Murphy and Robinson are black.

When asked what role he feels race will play in this election, Murphy said it’s important to let all groups know who supports which candidate.

“Certainly, we don’t want to run a race-based type of campaign,” said Murphy, who has moved to Washington to serve as senior minister of Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ, one of the nation’s most historic black churches. “Certainly the African American community is a very diverse community. Certainly what we’re saying today is that we support Carol Wood.”

Race is still a sensitive issue in America, with assumptions that racial groups vote for candidates similar in color to them, despite some who have claimed since the election of President Barack Obama that the country is “post-racial.” However, a statistical study of the outcome of the recent primary suggests that race was not much of a factor.

Mark Grebner, owner of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing, found that whites and blacks did not differ much in their voting in the Aug. 4 primary. He analyzed the vote in the mayor’s race using a statistical computation called linear regression and information on demographics from U.S. Census data.

Grebner found that of the 5,500 “walk-in” votes cast in the primary (not including absentee voters), Ford got 39 percent of the 15 percent of the black electorate and 14 percent of the 84 percent that are the white electorate. Thirty-nine percent of the black electorate equals about 321 votes and 14 percent of the white electorate is around 646 votes. The difference between the sum of those two number and the 1,474 total votes Ford got is due in part to not counting absentee voters.

Comparatively, Bernero got 264 votes from the black electorate and Wood got 247.

Grebner had assumed before doing the math that Ford, who is black, got mostly black votes. Wood got 30 and 35 percent of the black and white electorates, respectively, and Bernero 32 percent black and 49 percent among white voters.

“Lansing may be showing signs that race is disappearing as a predictor (in election outcomes),” Grebner said.

Ford lost Precinct 8 in the Fourth Ward, which Grebner estimates has the highest number of black voters. In that precinct, roughly bordered by I-496, the Grand River and the city limits on the west side, almost 70 percent of voters are black; Ford got 61 votes, but still finished third to Wood (62 votes) and Bernero (73 votes).

In the eighth precinct in the First Ward (which Grebner estimates contains one black voter) Ford got 17 votes compared to Wood’s 55 and Bernero’s 83. In the 14th precinct in the Second Ward, which, too, has a small number of black voters (14), Ford got 30 votes compared to Wood’s 42 and Bernero’s 50.

Curtis Stokes, a professor of political theory and constitutional democracy at Michigan State University, and co-author of the recent book, “The State of Black Michigan, 1967-2007,” bristled at the notion that Lansing might be entering a post-racial era.

He also said that blacks don’t vote just based on color; there are too many factors in an election — candidates’ name recognition, their past success, reach in the community — to draw conclusions based on the race of a candidate.

“Blacks have never voted simply on race. Certainly, the argument has been made that with the election of Barack Obama we have a situation where blacks overwhelmingly voted for Obama, as did a significant number of whites. Some say we’re postracial, but most whites voted for John McCain.”

“These numbers, what they mean to me, is that blacks, when given an opportunity, they will vote issues,” he said of Grebner’s estimates.

Lansing, Stokes pointed out, is still a very racially divided community. Blacks’ household income is 55 percent of their white counterparts, said Stokes, and 41 percent of blacks in Lansing live in poverty compared to 10 percent of whites. To “decouple” politics from the range of issues faced by blacks in Lansing, Stokes said, would be shaky at best.

For Ford, the issue of race in the campaign is a touchy subject. First and foremost, he believes, voters checked his name on the ballot because they liked his policies and his past work in the community.

“I’m 54 years old. It was a race that I felt very well qualified for. Everybody knew I was running, and we did have a good message. People agree with what you’re doing, they support you or they don’t,” he said.

Ford said that when a black person talks about race, they might be viewed as playing “the race card.” To that end, he wants his candidacy — and his endorsement of Bernero — to be remembered as being by a qualified public servant. A former City Council member, Ford serves on Lansing’s school board.

“I’m African American. I am proud to be African American, I am so proud of that. But I want people to vote for my qualifications and what I bring to the table, what agendas they feel will move this city forward.”

Patrick McAlvey, Bernero’s campaign manager, echoed Ford. He said that there might be some who vote for a candidate based on race, but most look
at qualifications.

“There was not necessarily thought given to the
black vote because of Ford’s endorsement,” McAlvey said. “In some ways
(the black) community is hurting more, but a lot of issues are the
same. The issues are jobs, paying your bills. I feel that Mayor Bernero
has a strong record for bringing jobs to Lansing. Hopefully that that
will resonate with voters.”

Joseph Graves, the former chief of
staff for former mayor David Hollister, was among those at Wood’s
announcement on Tuesday. Graves, who is black, said he didn’t think
race is a factor in the election. But the more members of the community
that can support Wood, the better, he said.

Wood, who in her speech
used the term “mosaic” to describe Lansing, said that Tuesday’s press
conference demonstrated that there’s a “multi-cultural coalition”
behind her campaign.

“We’re not targeting a race or a gender,” she said. “We’re targeting Lansing.”