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A race to play the race card

Tuesday, April 11, 2000

There's nothing like the stench of racial politics wafting up from Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District these days. In the battle between Republican state Sen. Melissa Hart and Democrat Terry Van Horne, no one can blame a thoughtful voter for feeling trapped between Scylla and Charybdis.

In one corner stands Van Horne, the state rep who won last week's Democratic primary. Though victorious, Van Horne had no choice but to smile sheepishly as the Republicans went nuclear by dredging up the most humiliating incident of his political life.

It all began in 1994 when Van Horne, no doubt auditioning for a spot in the gangsta rappers' hall of fame, referred to state Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia, then House Appropriations chairman and a fellow Democrat, as "an inner city nigger."

Van Horne said he was merely repeating what other House Democrats were saying about Evans' handling of the budget impasse with then Gov. Casey. It didn't take Van Horne long to realize how ridiculous he looked playing the gossip-prone victim in a racial drama he initiated.

Swallowing hard, he apologized to Evans and all Pennsylvanians for disgracing his office with his stupidly casual epithet. Evans accepted his apology and, to this day, still calls Van Horne a "friend," though I doubt that they'll ever really be "homies."

But desperate to maintain its 11-seat majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans have discovered the short-term value of digging up half-forgotten racial slights, just like cynical Democrats.

In the spirit of the late Republican dirty-trickster Lee Atwater, Melissa Hart's party couldn't wait to spread the sordid details of Van Horne's pathetic contretemps six years ago. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, shamelessly called upon the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to cut Van Horne off at the knees for using "disparaging and racist language."

"What did Tom Davis say when George W. Bush went to Bob Jones University?" Evans said with a laugh. "Why is Tom Davis worried about the well-being of a Democrat in Philadelphia?" Good question. But I suspect Davis is more concerned about comments made by Democrats in the presence of reporters, not the everyday intolerance of right-wing religious institutions and country clubs.

My friend "Dag" from McCandless was so incensed by the committee's tactics that he jokingly suggested the formation of a PAC called "Melissa's Posse," staffed exclusively with black volunteers from the East End who'd spread the Republicans' new message of modified "Al Sharptonism" in the 'burbs.

Convinced that Hart hasn't thought about black people since "writing that term paper on Richard Wright back at North Allegheny High," Dag believes such a PAC would suitably embarrass the state senator.

"Melissa Hart should've denounced [the committee's] tactics," Evans said. "Instead of talking about education, social security and the economy, the Republicans have resorted to hypocrisy and sleazy politics. Is she going to be a representative of all the people or just the Republican Party?"

Meanwhile, Terry Van Horne will spend the days leading up to the November election apologizing and pandering to as many voters as expedience demands. In an era when "kinder" and less racially demagogic Republicans abound, a Democrat best known for insulting black voters in a racist pique has to work harder than ever to get my vote.

Tony Norman's email: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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