Williams, Kenney battle for black votes in churches, on talk radio

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    A ritual of every Philadelphia mayor’s race is vying for the endorsement of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.

    Thursday it went to Williams, the most well-known African-American candidate. But former City Councilman Jim Kenney, who is white, is determined to compete for African-American votes in the Democratic primary, and he is claiming some support in black churches and getting some exposure on black talk radio. 

    For a couple of weeks now, super PACs supporting both Kenney and Williams have been running ads on African-American oriented stations.

    The pro-Kenney ads, run by the group Forward Philadelphia, feature Kenney’s endorsement earlier this month by five African-American elected officials from Northwest Philadelphia.

    When those ads appeared, the super PAC supporting Williams, American Cities countered with an audio version of its latest TV ad, which features African-American community leaders praising Williams.

    Like churches, black talk radio programs are places to reach people regarded as more engaged and more likely to vote than the general population.

    Sara Lomax Reese, president and general manager of WURD 900 AM declined to offer an opinion on which candidate the stations’ callers seem to favor, but she told me the super PACs are smart to invest in the conversation.

    “Black talk radio has historically been a place were serious-minded people are listening and engaged, and are looking to know about the issues,” she said.

    Battle for the preachers

    In accepting the black clergy endorsement yesterday,  Williams insisted he doesn’t think of politics in racial terms, and that he won’t divide the city to win the race. He warned that pundits will talk of the endorsement in the context of what he called “racial math.”

    The president of the clergy group, Rev. Terrence Griffith said the endorsement can put a Philadelphia candidate in a position to win.

    “You have many churches across the city, and you have pastors and preachers of influence in this city,” he said, “and contrary to what people believe, people still believe and listen to clergy.”

    When I asked if clergy would be endorsing Williams from the pulpit, Griffith said, no, but preachers have a right to individually talk to their members.

    There’s a tradition in Philadelphia and other places of black ministers offering, shall we say, words of encouragement to candidates they favor on Sundays. Kenney thinks he’ll get some of that love, too.

    Kenney released a statement Thursday saying he was moved that he got the backing of the executive committee of the clergy group, before Williams won the majority in a membership vote. Asked about that at the endorsement news conference, Rev. Griffiths said he couldn’t discuss the group’s internal process.

    While Williams says he rejects the idea of dividing to win, his campaign has put up a website attacking Kenny’s past positions related to police community relations.

    Kenney’s campaign has been raising questions about Williams votes in the legislature on several issues, including a “stand your ground” law expending the permissible use of guns in self defense.

    Another African-American candidate, Doug Oliver has also starting advertising on radio.

    For what it’s worth a new poll funded by supporters of Kenney finds the overall race to be a dead heat. Among black voters, it shows Williams leading with 39 percent. Lynne Abraham is second at 17 percent, and Kenney has 13 percent.

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