Ike Brown is a legend in Mississippi politics, a fast-talking operative both loved and hated for his ability to turn out black voters and get his candidates into office.
That success has also landed him at the heart of a federal lawsuit that's about to turn the Voting Rights Act on its end.
For the first time, the U.S. Justice Department is using the 1965 law to allege racial discrimination against whites.
Brown, head of the Democratic Party in Mississippi's rural Noxubee County, is accused of waging a campaign to defeat white voters and candidates with tactics including intimidation and coercion. Also named in the lawsuit is Circuit Clerk Carl Mickens, who has agreed to refrain from rejecting white voters' absentee ballots considered defective while accepting similar ballots from black voters.
The Justice Department complaint says Brown and those working with him "participated in numerous racial appeals during primary and general campaigns and have criticized black citizens for supporting white candidates and for forming biracial political coalitions with white candidates."
Noxubee County - a rural area along the Alabama line named for a Choctaw word meaning "stinking water" - has a population of 12,500, 69 percent black and 30 percent white.
Whites once dominated county politics here, but now only one white person holds countywide office, and he says Brown tried to recruit an out-of-county black candidate to run against him three years ago.
I really detest racial appeals in voting, but as David Bernstein points out, I have no idea if they're illegal (or even if they are, whether such a legal interpretation would be consistent with the First Amendment). Also, of course, in cases like this there is always the question of whether or not the target is being selected for his political skill, rather than any violation of the law. And of course, there is serious concern that similar acts by white political operatives get the ol' wink and nod from the DOJ:
"The main concern we have in the civil rights community isn't necessarily that that DOJ brought this case," [Jack] Greenbaum says. "It's that the department is not bringing meritorious cases on behalf of African-American and Native American voters."
Justice Department records show the department's last voting-rights case alleging discrimination against black voters was filed in 2001. Since then, six cases have been brought on behalf of voters of Hispanic or Asian descent in five states -- plus the case involving white voters in Mississippi.
But [Brown's Defense Attorney, Black Republican Wilbur] Colom criticizes the Justice Department for filing a complaint against a black political consultant while ignoring similar behavior by white political operatives in Mississippi.
"It has overtones of politics and that's the wrong road for Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department," the attorney says. "It's going to destroy their credibility the next time they ask black people to listen to them."
Hmm...the last case alleging discrimination against Black voters was brought forth in 2001. What could have possibly engendered a major shift in DOJ policy in 2001? Coincidence, I'm sure.
In any event, assuming that these allegations are correct, I think such tactics are quite sleazy and deserve condemnation. Would that you'd ever see such condemnation when White political leaders engage in the activity, though.