Harold Ford Has a Caribbean American Dilemma, and a Trip to Haiti Won't Cut It

The Reverend Al Sharpton's VIP invite to former Rep. Harold Ford to join him on a rescue mission trip to Haiti on Martin Luther King Day may make Ford feel he can work his way into the hearts of African American voters in New York State, but Harold Ford better recognize a trip to Haiti is not enough to attract Caribbean American support. Sharpton's symbolic gesture to Ford does not hold sway with this voting block. In fact, it irritates them.

Caribbean American leaders question Ford's sincerity when it comes to issues that impact the nearly 700,000 Caribbean Americans in New York City alone. There is grave concern about how much he knows and what he will do.

In the late 1990s, members of the Association of Caribbean Elected Officials led a delegation of legislators, business leaders and community activists, to meet with then Rep. Ford to get his support on the changing economy in the Caribbean - from the banana industry to tourism. The Chiquita banana flap between the tiny West Indian islands of Dominica and Grenada and Latin America came to a head.

Clearly observing the eventual slap in the face by the Clinton Administration on the issue, the delegation sought to get support from Ford for a five year extension to delay the shift of banana trade. It would have allowed the islands impacted by the new trade regulations over bananas to move into a more tourism-driven economy.

"We wanted to educate Ford about the vulnerability of these smaller states in the Caribbean that depended upon one product," said one of the delegates who did not want their name listed over concerns of possible political backlash. "Ford did not appreciate what we were saying. We were shocked. When you compare the amount of trade the Caribbean does with the U.S.; we spend more than many nations in the world. Additionally, where the Caribbean states are geographically located, it was amazing to us that he had no curiosity or interest."

Ford, who's African American, should know Caribbean Americans make up a significant demographic, bringing a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship, education and financial success to the Empire State. This heavily Democratic demographic is an active participant in the political process. The Caribbean community's superstar is Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke of Brooklyn, who is of Jamaican heritage. It might behoove him to try and sit with Clarke and those connected to her. Many of Clarke's supporters behind the scenes say Ford can run for office and off to Haiti, but they are not impressed. There is thinking that he will cast an African American experience blanket over them. A big mistake.

Ford will have a difficult time currying favor without West Indian leadership approval. Most are leaning towards Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Sharpton knows he will have to negotiate with Caribbean leadership on behalf of Ford should the Reverend stop playing politics in the middle with Gillibrand and throw his weight behind Ford. Some Caribbean leaders believe Sharpton is doing the bidding of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who behind the scenes has offered support to Ford if he should decide to hop into the race. If this is true or even a perception, it will not help Ford get any support from this community.

At the moment, Gillibrand does not have strong black voter support. She is still unknown, but she has quietly appointed key Caribbean American leaders as advisers to help her navigate the community. Her first order of business this week was to hang out in Brooklyn, learning how to connect with a population she too knows very little about, as they put into place disaster relief efforts for Haiti.

Gillibrand is very nervous about a pending Ford challenge and his potential to siphon off black votes. However, she has a jump on Ford when it comes to the West Indian population. Caribbean Americans predominantly live in Brooklyn, Harlem, North East Bronx, Mt. Vernon, Orange County and Buffalo.

Ford can't do what former Sen. Hillary Clinton did when she came into New York State to win her seat. Caribbean leaders believe he is not big enough and does not bring enough to the table to New York. Hence, to many, despite the fact that he is black, for Ford the "carpetbagger" label might really stick.

A loyal electorate, once they commit, Caribbean Americans are not so easily swayed. He's going to have to know more about New York's Caribbean community than Bob Marley, rice and peas and curry goat. He might want to also consider how many votes Al Sharpton can get him if the reverend endorses him. Harold Ford will have to do much more than understand Caribbean Americans. He must overstand.