As Saturday night's Brown and Black Presidential Forum in Des Moines draws near, concerns have emerged about the way it is being organized. The forum, which is the oldest minority-focused presidential debate in the country, is one of the great traditions of the Iowa Caucuses, but local activists and campaigns have been frustrated by this year's planning and execution.
The core group helping to organize the forum has been shrunk from previous years, according to Des Moines Realtor and Latino activist Joe Henry, who was involved with the forum in its early years during the 1980s and became involved again during the 2000 election cycle. Henry, who supports Sen. Barack Obama, was not invited to participate in the planning this year.
"It's pretty evident at this point that both Wayne Ford and Mary Campos -- both old friends of mine -- have undoubtedly aligned themselves with the Clinton campaign," he said, "and the smaller, the better, for that." Campos and Ford, both respected and long-standing activists, founded the forum together in 1984 and continue to operate it as co-chairs. Ford also serves in the Iowa House.
Reached for comment Thursday afternoon, the two organizers denied any allegations that they were favoring one candidate over others. "I don't think that question needs an answer," Ford said. "I am a little insulted that people would even think that," continued Campos.
Mark Daley, Iowa Communications Director for Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign, denied the accusations as well.
Still, concerns exist because of the uncharacteristic exclusivity of the planning for this year's forum.
Max Cardenas, a Hispanic entrepreneur from Des Moines, was involved in the 2004 Brown and Black Presidential Forum. He told Iowa Independent that he was invited to participate in the planning of that year's forum a month before it began. In the week preceding it, he was asked to organize one of several community-wide meetings focusing on specific issue areas that were of interest to the minority community. The meetings served as part of the build-up to to the Saturday forum, he said, and they helped to maximize the number of people involved in the discussion before questions were formulated and the forum took place. This year, he was not invited to participate, and there was no indication that any such meetings took place. "That's unfortunate," he said.
Although Cardenas admitted he had not seen "concrete evidence" that either Campos or Ford planned to endorse Sen. Hillary Clinton, he noted speculatively that "The guests of Mary Campos [who will be at the Forum with her] are co-chairs of the Clinton campaign."
Henry said he did not have concrete proof that Campos and Ford were operating the forum to the benefit of Clinton, either. But, he said, "If they weren't doing it consciously, they were doing it through reduction of size" of the group invited to participate in organizing the forum, "Kind of in an unconscious way."
"By not allowing larger or more participation, they pretty much knew what they were going to do," he continued. "It lends itself to partisan behavior."
"Both Mary and Wayne, they already know which group they are going to support... They know what is going to be the end result." Henry added, "Again, I'm not going to be surprised a day after the forum that an endorsement's going to [be announced] and they're going to support Clinton."
Aside from the concerns raised by past participants about who was included in the planning of the forum and who was excluded, three knowledgeable sources who asked to remain anonymous expressed frustration over the apparent secrecy with which tickets are being distributed. Each presidential campaign has been promised approximately 50 tickets to hand out to their supporters, the organizers say, but the auditorium at North High School in Des Moines seats more than 1,000 people. If all eight participating candidates (including Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel) fill all 50 of their allotted seats with supporters, that would still leave the majority of the auditorium empty. Campaigns were set to receive their allotment of tickets Thursday afternoon.
In an interview, Campos and Ford did not explain how they would fill the rest of the auditorium, nor did the organization respond to an emailed request for clarification after the interview concluded. The Brown and Black Forum's web site does not offer any information about ticket distribution to the public.
Although no sources could provide proof of who would receive the additional tickets, three sources independently speculated that they would go to Clinton supporters, a charge which the Clinton campaign denies.
But Ford and Campos would not admit to any bias. "There's no proof out there that me and Mary have ever done anything wrong," said Ford. He also noted that the forum operates as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so it cannot endorse a political candidate. It is "completely nonpartisan and noncommittal to any party," said Ryan Ford, who acts as the forum's liason with the media. "The co-chairs ... make sure that they do not commit or do any work for any of the campaigns before the forum" for this reason, he continued.
But the organizers do plan to issue individual endorsements. "My history has always been, after the forum is over, when I have a comfortable zone, I'll make a decision," Wayne Ford said. "I plan to make a statement about who impressed me." Campos confirmed that she, too, would probably make an endorsement, but noted that "I believe we have all good candidates running."
Neither would commit to a timetable for announcing their endorsements, admitting that they could come as early as next week or as late as January 2, 2008. Both said they had not made up their minds about which candidates they might support.
For their parts, both Cardenas and Henry called the appearance of bias -- whether true or not -- "unfortunate."
"I think the Brown and Black Forum, given its national audience -- it's a great opportunity for African-Americans and Hispanics" in Des Moines, said Cardenas.
"Now other Latinos and other African-Americans are being excluded from a group that should not be discriminatory and partisan," said Henry. "It should be about the issues."
Asked why the forum has been the subject of allegations and scrutiny this year, Ford paused. "It must be a close race," he said.