'You Have the Power'

Thirty-one hours into the get-out-the-vote bus tour across Florida last weekend, Rep. Corrine Brown showed why she's sometimes referred to as "Queen." Brown, a Florida Democrat, was one of the movers and shakers on the four-day, seven-city tour brimming with Congressional Black Caucus members, leading African-American Hollywood actors and organized-labor bigwigs. By day two of "Our Vote, Our Future" as bodies began to tire and nerves to fray, it was Brown who insisted on an unscheduled detour. "Call it a mental-health stop," Brown said, leading a procession of prominent women into Phil's Discount Ladies' Shoes in Jacksonville.

Those who happily filed into the store behind her included Democratic Reps. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and actresses Alfre Woodard and Victoria Rowell. Out of the second bus stepped James McDaniel, who played Lt. Arthur Fancy on "NYPD Blue"; Kerry-Edwards campaign advisor Art Collins; Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and a clutch of Democratic National Convention and Kerry-Edwards staffers. Without a store of their own to browse, the men in this group (several of whom had been invited to change buses a few hours earlier) busied themselves making cell-phone calls, peeking through the windows of the shoe store, and marveling at the curative powers of the three-inch heel.

For Brown, the pit stop was a light-hearted diversion from a deadly serious task. She's determined to avoid a repeat of the bitterly contested 2000 election when 27,000 votes from her district were discarded. Like many other Floridians, Brown believes that had those votes been counted, George W. Bush would never have been elected president. And like her companions, Brown believes that Kerry will win on Nov. 2 only if the Democratic base turns out in full force. The high-profile bus-tour participants were on the road in a bid to make that happen; although black voters are among the most reliable Democratic supporters, John Kerry has so far has failed to inspire enough of their adulation to guarantee that kind of turnout. At the same time, the percentage of African-American voters who say they are willing to vote for Bush has doubled since 2000, from 9 to 18 percent, according to a recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Some insiders suggest Kerry's malaise is "Clintonitis"--simply put, he's not Clinton. Others insist that it's merely a matter of spreading the good news about Kerry, such as the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus was the first group he asked to meet with after securing the Democratic nomination. The whirlwind tour kicked off in Tallahassee on Oct. 15 with an early-morning prayer breakfast (coffee and donuts) at Florida A&M University, where Brown and Rep. Kendrick Meek urged students at their alma mater to take advantage of Florida's early-voting system.

Next stop, the offices of Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood, who snubbed the group by not showing up for a meeting to discuss their concerns about possible attempts to discourage African-Americans from voting on Election Day. Undaunted, they held a press conference in the lobby, where Meek criticized what he said was Hood's one-sided focus on preventing voter fraud. "The pressure is not only on the voter to show up at the right polling place, it's also on the state to protect the rights of voters," Meek said.

At each stop, whether school, church or rally outside of government offices, the tour's participants molded their appeals to the crowd on hand. As the buses wheeled up to Edmund Waters College in Jacksonville on Saturday evening, they were greeted by the funky drumline of a marching band. In the waning light, a drill team performed gyrations worthy of a rap video. The teenaged throng, many of them newly registered voters, hold what some believe is the key to breaking the virtual tie between Bush and Kerry in the fast-approaching election. When the music stopped and Woodard took the microphone, she had a serious message. "In your black hands, right now, you have the power to make history," Woodard told the students.

With cheering crowds and television cameras waiting for them at nearly every stop, the bus rides between events became something of a sanctuary, although one with a sticky bathroom door. After twice leaving his seat to help extricate trapped busmates, McDaniel simply shouted out instructions the third time it happened. "Turn the knob to the left," he called from a seat near the front of the bus. Despite the reality-TV combination of a hectic schedule, confined quarters and a collection of egos from different worlds, the tour had the feel of a family event. Representative Tubbs-Jones found that life in the public eye gave her something of a kinship with the actors. No one batted an eyelash when she produced a bottle of lotion between stops and began moisturizing her feet. "It's nice to have an opportunity to be with people who understand," she said.