Whitman Endorsed By Black Ministers She Got The Backing Of About 70 Clergy Members. Her Relationship With The Community Has Been Patchy.

Posted: September 17, 1997

TRENTON — A gospel choir's rousing chords and an evangelist's spiritual exhortations echoed off the marble columns of the Statehouse yesterday as Gov. Whitman reveled in the endorsement of 70 or so African American ministers from across the state.

Whitman, surrounded by black leaders of Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations, appeared genuinely warmed by the praise she received, and even appeared to blush as Newark evangelist Wynell Johnson prayed aloud on the Statehouse steps for God to ``let a spirit of excellence now rest upon our governor.''

The ministers and Whitman's own campaign team were quick to stress the unique nature of the event - a group of African American leaders endorsing a Republican politician.

The endorsement was even more striking in light of Whitman's rocky relationship with the state's black community.

The endorsement's significance might be tempered by the fact that one of yesterday's leaders had endorsed Whitman four years ago as well. In addition, the far larger Black Ministers Council of New Jersey has yet to weigh in on the race.

But that didn't stop Whitman's campaign manager, Tom Wilson, from highlighting the importance of yesterday's event. ``The African American community has traditionally been considered a building block to a successful Democratic campaign, and any time a group allies itself in a way other than the traditional way is significant,'' Wilson said.

Of course, former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean won 63 percent of the black vote in 1985.

After the adult choir from Trenton's True Servant Worship and Praise Family Center belted out several powerful hymns, Whitman appeared with the ministers and smiled as they heaped praises on her.

``We are supporting Gov. Whitman in recognition of her continued commitment to the education of our children, her appointment of minorities and women, and her willingness to reach out to all people. She has been cordial, honest and open,'' said Imam Abdul-Malik Ali, a Camden native and the resident imam of Masjidut-Taqwa, an Islamic congregation in Trenton.

The Rev. Perry Simmons, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, who had endorsed Whitman four years ago, said she deserved reelection because she kept her promises: to cut taxes, create new jobs, reduce the cyclic dependence on welfare, and keep her door open to all New Jerseyans. Mr. Simmons said that because of Whitman's economic policies, many poor African American families ``are no longer focused on economic peril but on economic promise.''

And Piscataway evangelist Shirley Graham quoted the words of Hugh Price, national president of the Urban League, saying that ``our attention in the African American community must shift from social programs to economical empowerment.

``Traditionally in this century, most African Americans have been Democratic voters; but we are here to say that no longer will all our votes remain in one single party,'' Graham said. ``No party will be able to say, `We control the African American vote.' ''

Graham spoke on behalf of an organization of ministers called SUPPER Inc., designed to renew spirituality and combat decay within the black community.

Despite yesterday's endorsement, it is still unclear who the majority of minority ministers will endorse from the pulpit as the election draws near. Both Whitman and her Democratic opponent, State Sen. James E. McGreevey, are expected to meet with the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey Sept. 30, and the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, the council's executive director, has said the group has serious concerns about both candidates.

Though the council of 600 or so churches doesn't endorse candidates, it plans to issue a ``report card'' on Whitman's record in office and McGreevey's voting record in the Senate.

Mr. Jackson said the ministers have serious concerns about the high cost of auto insurance in inner cities, the cuts in state aid to urban hospitals that treat low-income working patients who lack medical insurance, the proposed tunnel in Atlantic City that will secure new casino development but will also demolish the city's last stable African American neighborhood, and the lack of money to repair urban schools.

``The council believes that whoever is our next governor, cities must become a top priority, because they haven't been in years,'' Mr. Jackson said.

Ever since Ed Rollins, Whitman's campaign manager in 1993, triggered controversy with his boast that the campaign paid off black ministers to suppress the black vote, Whitman has struggled to restore good relations with minority voters.

She appointed James H. Coleman Jr. as the first African American to sit on the New Jersey Supreme Court, and she has appointed several blacks to cabinet positions, including Secretary of State Lonna Hooks and Board of Public Utilities Chairman Herbert Tate. Whitman has also been a vocal supporter of affirmative action.

Finally, as Mr. Jackson has noted, many African Americans are fiscally conservative and socially moderate, so Whitman's policies have a natural appeal.

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