LOS ANGELES — Bill Clinton was planning to woo black voters in Central Los Angeles over the weekend from the pulpit of the influential First AME Church, for years a traditional stop for candidates. It’s a venue the former president knows well.
But it didn’t happen — because of a policy change made by the church that affects all candidates.
“The Clintons asked to come to church today,” First AME Pastor Dr. John J. Hunter told his congregation during his Sunday morning sermon, “but I said no.”
His comment drew applause from several hundred parishioners, many of whom had packed the church in previous years to hear from such politicians as Bill Clinton, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and numerous other contenders, black and white, looking for black votes.
Hunter, who has publicly endorsed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president, gave a sermon praising the Illinois senator for running a clean campaign in the South Carolina primary, and appeared critical of the tenor of the Clinton campaign in South Carolina. The congregation applauded at each mention of Obama, and broke into sustained applause when Hunter said, “The low road is treating people worse than they treat you. My brother Barack Obama took the high road in his victory speech in South Carolina last night.”
After the service, parishioner Tracy Littlejohn said the pastor wasn’t implying the Clintons weren’t welcome at First AME in his sermon. “Anybody who wants to can come to church here. The Clintons have deep ties to the African American community,” she said.
Rep. Diane Watson, a Hillary Clinton backer and California super delegate at the Democratic National Convention, said she told Clinton that the negative tone of her campaign against Obama in South Carolina could have repercussions in the California primary.
“I’ve had people tell me they would support Hillary until the attack,” Watson said. “I told her, ‘Don’t take South Central for granted.’”
Watson had arranged Sunday appearances at seven other African American churches for the former president. But the plan was scrapped, Watson said, when the Clinton campaign said both Clintons had “commitments to South Carolina” on Saturday. Hillary Clinton came in a distant second to Obama in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, and in fact left the state early to campaign in Tennessee. Tennessee is one of 24 states, including California, that will hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5.
African American voters account for roughly 7 percent of registered Democrats in California and are traditionally among the party’s most loyal voters. But there is concern among some of Hillary Clinton’s supporters that the tenor of her campaign, including remarks from her husband, has alienated some of those voters.
Hunter said First AME has changed its policy and is no longer allowing politicians to actively campaign from the pulpit. The same restriction would apply to Obama, he said.
The policy change came as a surprise to Hillary Clinton’s supporters.
Several churchgoers heading in and out of Sunday services in both Los Angeles’ wealthiest black enclaves and the working-class neighborhoods said the impact of the Clinton-Obama feud in South Carolina was hyped by the media and that they had backed Obama all along. They said they supported Obama for his optimism and his pledge to bring change to Washington.
“He is a fresh face,” Cima Lawson said before the service at Holman United Methodist Church, in Los Angeles’ West Adams district. “He is different from four years of Bush, eight years of Clinton, and another eight years of Bush.”
Michael Jones, president of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce, said support for Obama in the community was strong because he is offering a powerful message that transcends party and racial divides.
“Unlike other politicians, Obama represents what they want: hope,” he said. “Hope to change the status quo. Hope to transform the ruts we’ve been in politically. Hope to bring partisan laws across the aisles. Hope to get something done.”
But a Field Poll conducted during the week of Jan. 14–20 — prior to the South Carolina primary — showed Hillary Clinton leading Obama by 12 points among likely California voters, but she trailed him by more than 30 points among likely black voters.
Paul Gackle, a student, reports for the California News Service, a project of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.