By Worth Civils
Republican challenger Jess Ward is looking to play the race card to help him defeat incumbent Democrat David Price in the 4th Congressional District.
But some political insiders say race issues might hurt rather than help Ward, the first black Republican to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in the state since 1901.
Ward is confident that he can win the race by pulling Durham's black vote away from Price. "My opponent has had his way with the black vote, but now he is running against an African-American candidate with a good record," Ward said. "He won by a margin of only 35,000 votes last time. If I get 10,000 black votes from him, that's 20,000 votes. That's more than half the margin."
Ward, a first-term Cary Town Council member, said the black vote, combined with a strong year for Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates in North Carolina, will earn him a congressional seat. "I think I'm in the game," he said.
But several recent polls show Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley leading Republican Richard Vinroot by a nose.
And Rep. Micky Michaux, D-Durham, said Ward's association with the Republican Party would actually prevent blacks from voting for him.
"When you think of the Republican Party, you think of Jesse Helms, and I don't think he's too well-liked in black community," Michaux said. "We have a healthy distrust of Republicans on the whole."
Beyond problems with Helms, Michaux said, the black community disagrees with many Republican platform staples, such as implementing school voucher programs and ending affirmative action, both of which Ward supports. "It instills a notion of inferiority," Ward said of affirmative action. "I would entertain new ideas to help underachieving minorities."
According to an August 2000 Gallup poll, 76 percent of black voters say the Democratic Party best represents their beliefs. Only 13 percent of those polled say the Republican Party best represents their beliefs.
But Ward said he is in touch with blacks and has worked hard to support them in many ways.
After floods caused by Hurricane Floyd devastated Princeville, the first community founded by blacks in the state, Ward said he pushed Cary to "adopt" the predominantly black town that was founded by former slaves.
"I nudged my council to help," he said. "We raised $100,000 from the private sector."
Ward said he has also visited black churches in the 4th District during the past year, trying to build support.
But the incumbent Price's record poses the greatest obstacle for Ward, said Barlow Herget, a former Raleigh city councilman and a radio commentator for WUNC. "The Durham vote is very, very important," Herget said. "(Price) knows that community and has done a lot of things to help Durham. We'll just have to wait and see if (Ward) is correct in that he can eat into that traditional Democratic base."
Early indications have shown that Ward will have problems gaining the support of fellow blacks in the area. The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the largest black group in the district, gave its endorsement to Price, even though Ward approached the committee.
"I have solid African-American support," Price said. "I've made no special accommodations for this race (against Ward). I will work very hard to obtain all voters' support."
Michaux said he knows of no other groups in Durham supporting Ward in the 4th District race and does not think the Republican has much support among the black community in general.
"I don't think it will be that close," Michaux said of the race.
"David Price will walk away with it."
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