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Ifill analyzes the political challenges facing minorities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2010 - The controversy is caused by the title, not the topic. That's how PBS journalist Gwen Ifill sees the continued buzz over her book -- "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" -- almost two years after publication.

People often mistakenly believe that the book is about and praises President Barack Obama, she says. Instead it is about the national climate that produced his victory, as well as the progress and problems faced by minority candidates and officeholders, particularly African Americans.

Ifill asserted that many of her critics, who accused her of promoting Obama's candidacy, have never read the book.

Ifill offered up such observations on Saturday during an hour-long presentation by the St. Louis County Library Foundation, held in the Danforth Chapel on the campus of Mary Institute-Country Day School. The occasion was to mark the recent release of a paperback version of her book.

In her talk, as in the book, Ifill touched on several politicians who had influenced her life -- notably former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, who was that state's first African-American woman to win election to Congress.

Like Obama, Jordan's ticket to national fame was a dynamic speech delivered at the Democratic National Convention. In Jordan's case, that opportunity came in 1976 -- 28 years before Obama's 2004 speech that propelled his presidential aspirations even before he'd been elected to the U.S. Senate.

But Ifill observed that a good speech -- and opportune timing -- aren't always enough. She noted that several minority candidates and public figures cited in her book haven't fared well lately at the polls.

"I have not put a curse on all of their careers," Ifill said, prompting chuckles. "But I was beginning to worry."

Ifill singled out the unsuccessful bid by U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., to be governor of Alabama. Despite his early high standing in the polls, Davis faltered in that state's June 1 Democratic primary.

Ifill's analysis: Davis alienated his Democratic base by trying so hard to show that he was independent from Obama and Democratic congressional leaders, to win support from voters who wouldn't traditionally back him. Davis, for example, was the only African-American Democrat in the House to vote against the final version of the Democratic-backed health-care measure.

Alienating one's base, said Ifill, can have politically fatal consequences. Davis "abandoned them, assuming they'd be there on Election Day," Ifill said. And the Democratic base opted to abandon him, as well.

She didn't directly tie that malady to Obama, but the point didn't seem to be lost on her audience.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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