By: Robert Samuels –
Jacksonville, Fla. — During those two electric Novembers, the chance to elect a black president, and then keep him in office, seized Regenia Motley’s neighborhood.
Nightclubs were registering voters. Churches held fish fries after loading buses that ferried parishioners to the polls. A truck hoisted a big sign that said “Obama.” And residents waited in long lines at precincts across the community.
But as Motley and some friends sought shade recently under a mulberry tree and looked across the landscape of empty lots and abandoned houses that has persisted here, they wondered whether they would ever bother voting again.
“What was the point?” asked Motley, 23, a grocery store clerk. “We made history, but I don’t see change.”
On Jacksonville’s north side and in other struggling urban neighborhoods across the country, where Barack Obama mobilized large numbers of new African American voters who were inspired partly by the emotional draw of his biography, high hopes have turned to frustration: Even a black president was unable to heal places still gripped by violence, drugs and joblessness.
While supporting Obama became a cause for many here rather than a typical campaign, Clinton faces a higher bar in making a case that she, too, can be a transformative figure.
Her campaign is planning to build on the multiethnic coalition that turned out to support Obama. Running to be the first female president, Clinton will also try to generate Obama-like enthusiasm among new voters — those who were too young to turn out for Obama or have not previously been engaged with politics.
Yet as her allies prepare to register voters and expand the black electorate, her candidacy presents residents here with a question: If Obama’s presidency didn’t do more to help African Americans, then how could hers?
“She is focusing on exactly the right issues,” said the Rev. Lee Harris of Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church on the north side. “But here in Jacksonville, the issues won’t be enough.”
Clinton has shown in recent weeks that she intends to put high-priority issues for African Americans, particularly those who live in impoverished urban areas, at the top of her campaign agenda.
In her first major policy speech, in April, amid the Baltimore protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray, Clinton lamented how the incarcerations of hundreds of thousands of black men affected communities. She vowed to “deliver real reforms that can be felt on our streets, in our courthouses, and our jails and prisons, in communities too long neglected.”
Clinton’s early moves are designed to signal that she can speak out and act more boldly than Obama, who felt political pressure as a candidate to tread lightly around race issues. Her campaign officials say she has enlisted a number of African Americans in top positions and plans on finding local leaders in cities who will advocate for her.
Still, polls show a gap between the positive feelings black voters have for Clinton and those they hold for Obama.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that 75 percent of African Americans thought that Clinton understood the problems of “people like you,” as opposed to 91 percent who felt that way about Obama in a survey last fall.
“At least with Obama, he gave pride to our young men and was a good role model,” said Daniel “Happy Jack” Cobb Jr., 73, the owner of Happy Jack’s Grocery and Market on Jacksonville’s north side. “Hillary needs to prove to us that she’s genuine and really true. And I’m not even sure that would help. We’ve been snakebitten too many times before.”
Far from the palm-tree-lined, trendy corridors of this sprawling city in the northeast corner of Florida, some roads on the north side have no sidewalks. The major thoroughfares are home to Family Dollar stores and bail bondsmen and crab shacks that sit between large, fenced-in lots full of shaggy grass. In one area, contaminated soil from a trash incinerator put off plans for a redevelopment project.
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