As champion of black farmers, Obama could win Southern votes

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has taken a leading role on a major civil rights issue affecting black farmers that could give him a boost in Democratic primaries in South Carolina and other states in the South.

The issue is the landmark Pigford settlement between historically disenfranchised black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Signed in 1999, the settlement was intended to make up for decades of discrimination in which black farmers were denied USDA loans and credit while white farmers were granted help.

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The Pigford settlement, an obscure issue to most voters, doesn’t even merit an entry on Wikipedia. It is critical, however, among some key Democratic constituencies in the South.

“I have yet to do a town hall meeting and not have someone ask me about the settlement,” said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who helped bring the matter to Obama’s attention. “It’s a supremely large issue in the black rural community in the South.”

Pigford may not resonate with northern blacks. But Steve Pruitt, a senior adviser for J.C. Watts Companies who lobbies for the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, predicted it would resonate in the South.

“If I am sitting in Harlem, I do not have a dog in this fight. But in the South, it is a big issue because everybody has farm connections, including blacks,” said Pruitt. “In South Carolina, this might be one of those elements that endear black folks to Obama.”

More than $730 million has been paid out since the settlement. But Obama and others charge that thousands of black farmers who had valid claims were denied relief, mostly because they missed the cut-off date for claims. Davis blames the late filings on the fact that USDA did not widely publicize the need to file claims.

For their part, USDA officials say they launched a paid media campaign that reached an estimated 87 percent of blacks working on farms or in related industries.

The farm bill approved by the House includes compromise language — worked out by Davis, Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) — that would allow those whose claims were denied a new review. Soon thereafter, on Aug. 3, Obama introduced legislation modeled on the House language. He previously had signed on to a bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Obama also plans to discuss his commitment to bring relief to black farmers on the campaign trail over the next few months, according to an aide on his presidential campaign.

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd said Obama’s position as a leader on the Pigford issue could “absolutely, unequivocally” help him politically.

“I think this will help Obama with black voters split between Hillary Clinton and Obama,” said Boyd, who said he was happy to see Obama speak out publicly on Pigford because there have been too few champions of black farmers in the Senate.

 Davis, who has endorsed Obama, rattles off the Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia primaries as elections where a sizable number of voters will care about a candidate’s stance on Pigford.

All of these primaries are scheduled to take place on or before Feb. 5, and all could turn on the support of black voters, who are torn between the African-American Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband remains enormously popular with black America.

Most South Carolina polls have shown Clinton with a sizable lead. For example, Obama trailed Clinton 45 percent to 27 in a Sept. 8 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of South Carolina voters. Obama also trailed among black voters in that poll, winning about one-third of the black vote, compared to 43 percent for Clinton.

Obama’s work on Pigford, however, could be a boon to his efforts as those primaries draw closer, Boyd and others said.

Davis said he and his staff have met with Obama consistently over the last year to discuss the matter, urging Obama to raise the issue in the Senate. Boyd also briefed the senator on the issue in 2005, according to the same presidential campaign aide.

Aside from introducing legislation this year, Obama has publicly criticized USDA employees for lobbying against Pigford language. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, who has since criticized those employees, Obama described the settlement as “an acknowledgement that black farmers suffered discrimination from the USDA for many years.”

He also called it “unconscionable” that some USDA employees were more concerned about how considering additional claims could affect their workloads than about correcting “a serious injustice.”

The USDA has not taken a position on the language in the House farm bill. In an interview, USDA general counsel Mark Kesselman emphasized that the department in the late 1990s supported legislation that waived the statute of limitations for discrimination claims against USDA. That decision, in turn, allowed thousands of black farmers to win claims. USDA has described the original legislation as unprecedented.

Since the settlement, Kesselman also noted that the USDA has undertaken several efforts to support black farmers and supports several provisions for inclusion in this year’s farm bill meant to assist minority farmers.