More than five years after Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses and demolished the notion that white voters wouldn’t support a black presidential candidate, progress for other African-American politicians remains elusive. Even as the country elected and reelected Obama, making it seem increasingly unremarkable to have a black family in the White House, African-Americans are scarce and bordering on extinct in the U.S. Senate and governorships.
The president is indeed exceptional — but in the wrong sense of the phrase as it applies to other black politicians.
Consider what has taken place, or not taken place, since Obama broke the presidential color barrier in 2008: There has not been one African-American elected to the Senate — the only blacks in the chamber were appointed to fill vacant seats; the country’s sole African-American governor, who was originally elected before Obama captured the presidency, won reelection but may leave the ranks of black governors empty when he leaves after 2013; and a cadre of promising, next-generation black politicians have either lost races (Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty, Reps. Kendrick Meek of Florida and Artur Davis of Alabama) or seen their careers extinguished because of scandal (former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.)
The situation is particularly embarrassing situation for Democrats, to whom black voters give the vast majority of their support. Until Sen. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.) was appointed in February, the only African-American in the Senate was a Republican — Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina And it’s not lost on high-profile Democrats that the GOP now enjoys more ethnic diversity among its statewide leaders than the party whose president is both an illustration and a beneficiary of America’s changing face.
The country’s sole African-American governor may leave the ranks bare after 2013. | AP Photo
“We’re not there yet,” conceded Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). “That’s why when people ask me whether the election of President Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream, I say, ‘No, it’s just a down payment. There’s still a lot of work to do.’”
Looking at the horizon, there’s reason for some optimism that a class of African-Americans now in their 30s and 40s will ascend to statewide office. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx (whom Obama will nominate to be transportation secretary on Monday), California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Maryland Lt. Gov Anthony Brown, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) and Oklahoma state House Speaker T.W. Shannon could all become governor or senator in the next decade.
But in the short term there’s a glaring dearth of African-Americans ready to step up. Booker could be the only black elected to the Senate in 2014 and Brown the sole African-American to become governor next year — and that assumes both win the nomination and general election.
Conversations with about two dozen elected officials, operatives and commentators yield an array of explanations for how the country could twice elect a black president yet not see similar racial progress among other high-ranking political positions.
A central point of contention — and one of the rawest debates ongoing in black politics — is whether Obama shares some blame for not doing more to advance a generation of African-American politicians.
“The reality is that for all of the euphoria about the election of Barack Obama in black America, his election has not had coattails,” said Tavis Smiley, the popular talk show host and outspoken Obama critic.
Smiley contended that the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful presidential campaigns in the 1980s did more to empower black politicians and voters than Obama’s election. “That’s just a hard fact that we’ve got to come to terms with,” he said.
Smiley has an amen corner among a segment of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has sharply criticized Obama for not appointing more African-Americans in his administration.
“He has had ample opportunity to do that and did not,” said veteran Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “And there’s no evidence that he is going to and not just at the Cabinet level but in some of the most important positions in government.”
Tim Scott (Republican Senator from South Carolina)
In private, other CBC members can be even harsher about Obama, deriding him as a selfish politician who has done little for his most loyal constituency.
But questions about whether the president is indifferent to lifting up a new generation of black politicians aren’t limited to his critics.
“I just don’t think Obama has given a lot of thought to what comes next in terms of African-American politics,” said PBS NewsHour anchor Gwen Ifill. Ifill — author of “The Breakthrough,” a 2009 book on the new generation of black politicians — said at least for the moment the “pipeline seems clogged.”
The president’s own distaste for the sometimes-transactional black politics of yore is hardly a secret. He ran against it directly when he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in a 2000 primary and bumped up against the old guard in his epic battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Obama friends make no apologies for his being a different sort of black politician and predict that Smiley’s criticism about lack of coattails will be proved wrong in time.
“I now see lots of young African-Americans talking about running for public office in no small part because they look at Barack Obama and in Barack Obama they see themselves,” said Obama strategist David Axelrod, who oversaw both the president’s first election and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2006 victory.
Axelrod’s sentiments are echoed among younger African-Americans, themselves eager to emulate Obama’s model of creating a multi-racial coalition and get beyond what they see as old-style politics.
“What’s instructive about the president and his reelection, which I kind of compare to my own, is it’s about building coalitions,” said Horsford, 39, a former Nevada state Senate majority leader who has three photos in his office of himself with Obama and whose district has the lowest proportion of black voters of any in the House represented by an African-American.
Added Brown, the Maryland lieutenant governor who is planning to run for governor next year: “You don’t distance yourself [from the previous generation of black politicians] — you focus on results and how you can impact all communities.”
While Horsford, Brown and most young black leaders pay the requisite respect to their elders – “standing on their shoulders” is the preferred phraseology – there is an element of Obamaworld that will go off- script. These Obama loyalists point a finger at the old guard as partly culpable for the lack of African-American advancement in statewide office.
“There are gatekeepers in place in black politics whose very presence tamps down upward mobility for newcomers,” complained a well-connected African-American official who is personally close to Obama. “There are established members in the CBC and state legislatures who’ve been there forever and until those folks move on to different things it’s going to be hard to break through.”
Other Obama supporters say his ability to win white votes — and the ability for black candidates to do so in the future — is actually aided by his not being seen as ostentatiously building an African-American political farm team.
“Tavis’s statement misses the fact that the example of the presidency, the highest office in our country, being occupied by a black man who handles the office with dignity is transformational for us all,” said Reed, the 43-year-old Atlanta mayor. “If he had been viewed as this champion of black people helping a cadre of young black people would that have been helpful to the bigger mission of having a black man not just elected but reelected to the presidency?”
Mo Cowan (Democratic Senator from Massachusetts)
Or as Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) put it: “If he concentrated on trying to set up some kind of brigade of black aspiring politicians where he would mentor them and so forth, somebody would introduce impeachment legislation.”
Beyond the debate over Obama’s role, a number of structural barriers have impeded black advancement in statewide races.
An enduring if rarely-voiced stereotype in the political community is that African-American politicians don’t fundraise as well as their white counterparts. The view is derived in part from the fact that many blacks have both safe and low-income House seats, meaning that they don’t necessarily need much cash to win and don’t have a substantial hometown base from which to raise money. This perception makes it less likely that black candidates will be recruited to run statewide and, thanks to the self-fulfilling nature of politics, harder on those African-Americans who take the plunge.
“Barack Obama was able to do something very few people are able to do,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), a well-regarded CBC veteran. “For the average African-American congressman, they’re lucky if they can raise a million dollars in a year.”
Obama is the obvious exception, but he’s not the only example. Former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. raised More than $14 million in his losing 2006 Senate run, and Booker hauled in nearly $2 million in just the first three months of this year for his 2014 bid in New Jersey. The common thread among the three politicians: Each developed close ties to bankers, among the most fertile sources of money in politics.
“As a rule, African-Americans have not had the kinds of relationships in the world of finance that allowed them to raise money,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).
What’s needed, said 40-year-old NAACP President Ben Jealous, is an enduring and well-funded political organization dedicated entirely to getting African-Americans elected.
“There is no black equivalent of EMILY’s List,” said Jealous. “That’s ultimately what is needed.”
Also, fundraising can be even more difficult for black women, whose ranks in statewide office are dramatically sparser than their male counterparts.
“African-American women have it harder because it’s harder for women to raise money, period,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a former speaker of the California Assembly.
MAJORITY MINORITY DISTRICTS
The most painful irony in black politics is that the very legislation that has ensured African-Americans have a voice in Congress, the Voting Rights Act, now can act as an impediment to blacks attempting to climb the electoral ladder.
While black-majority districts all but guarantee African-American representation, they also have the effect of stamping the members, fairly or not, as simply representing black interests. It’s a less than preferable training ground for a politician who wishes to run statewide among a more diverse electorate.
“The older I get and the more America changes, the more I believe gerrymandered districts are in many respects the worst thing for our country,” said Smiley.
For years, black Democrats and white Republicans have, particularly in the South, struck a Faustian bargain of sorts wherein they agree to racially packed districts that ensure safe seats for all parties. It has meant longevity for many black politicians in the state capitols and Washington but done little to vault African-Americans beyond their homogenous districts to statewide office.
“We’ve been working together [with Republicans] to put ourselves in this bind,” lamented 28-year-old South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, the ambitious son of a prominent Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader.
Many CBC members, including civil rights pillars like Clyburn and Lewis, have concluded that district-packing is detrimental and stated that they’d be OK with representing more diverse districts.
But the more promising course for African-Americans who wish to win statewide may be to start from the polyglot districts like the one Horsford represents in Nevada, with its mix of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
“The country’s demographics are changing and that provides an opportunity to run not just for statewide office but in congressional districts that aren’t historically black,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), who has fared well with whites and Hispanics in her suburban Washington district.
Recent evidence would suggest it’s easier for blacks to win Senate seats or governorships when they don’t hail from overwhelmingly black districts. Obama initially represented significant numbers of African-Americans in Chicago as a state senator, but made sure that, when lines were redrawn after the 2000 Census, his district shifted to include the moneyed precincts of Lakeshore liberals. Patrick, for his part, had never run for office when he became Massachusetts governor — his background was in the corporate world and in Bill Clinton’s Justice Department.
And Scott, the appointed South Carolina senator, faces his first Senate election next year having previously represented a House district that was 70 percent white and 19 percent black.
In fact, as some black Democrats concede, it can be easier for a black Republican to win white votes.
Scott said he’s not running as a black politician and argued that, in doing so, he’s fulfilling the content-of-our-character civil rights ideal.
“The civil rights movement and evolution of our country has always been about judging people as individuals,” said the South Carolinian, adding: “I’m convinced that South Carolinians are willing to elect a guy who doesn’t look like them if he thinks like them.”
Shannon, the 35-year-old Oklahoma House speaker, is another Republican who has flourished in a white majority area by emphasizing his philosophy.
“I didn’t run as an African-American,” said Shannon. “I ran as a conservative from southern Oklahoma, and that message is appealing to a lot of people.”
The failures of black statewide candidates certainly shouldn’t be chalked up entirely to crude racism, but it would be foolhardy to not consider the unease that some whites still feel about voting for a black candidate. Look no further than Obama’s 2008 landslide win, in which he still tailed off in some regions of the country from John Kerry’s 2004 loss.
What still gives some black Democrats pause about running statewide is that they simply don’t think conservative-leaning white voters will give them a fair shot.
“Most people are not going to want to say this publicly, but it is infinitely easier to win a public office in an urban center where you have a lot of cosmopolitan-minded people than it is to run statewide,” said Cleaver.
Cleaver said it requires a “Jackie Robinson-style personality.”
Added Clyburn of race: “It is so hard for African-Americans to get beyond it as candidates, and it’s very hard for white Americans to get beyond it as voters. It’s always there.”
The biggest concentration of blacks in the country, and therefore the natural home of black statewide candidates, is in the most conservative and racially polarized region of the country.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Cory Booker, but the South is totally different than what happens in New Jersey,” said Sellers. “Although we’re not bound by the obstacles my father and grandfather had to deal with, there are still some mindsets that have to be changed.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the lone black member of Congress in the country’s most heavily African-American state, said some white voters can’t see past race.
“For a lot of [white] Southerners, it’s still more than just the qualifications of the candidate,” said Thompson. “You’re kind of voting against a way of life you’re taught it should be.”
But racial politics, even in the South, is not as simple as it once was. Take the case of Davis, the former Alabama congressman who sought to run for governor by moving to the political center and is today a Republican living in Virginia — in large part because he lost African-American votes after pointedly opposing the Affordable Care Act, irking the state’s old-guard black leadership.
However, Reed, the Atlanta mayor, dismisses the idea that black voters will automatically abandon a black candidate who doesn’t toe a liberal line.
“You have a group of young leaders with a different skill set and a more centrist skill set,” he said. “In the past, black politicians had to surge left in order to maintain their political career. That just isn’t the case anymore.”
Black politicians, like all politicians, can be risk-averse when their careers are on the line. And the example of African-Americans running and losing in statewide races isn’t lost on them.
Take Missouri’s Alan Wheat. Little-remembered now, he was an up-and-comer in his day. Elected at age 31 to a racially mixed Kansas City-area seat previously held by Democratic powerhouse Richard Bolling, he gambled on a Senate race after a decade in the House and didn’t even crack 40 percent against John Ashcroft in the banner Republican year of 1994.
“That was his career,” said Cleaver.
For some black politicians, the relative job security of representing a safe House seat or running a Democratic city is preferable to gambling on a statewide race.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), for example, has been in the House for 20 years and did a stint in the Virginia Senate before he came to Washington. In the last few gubernatorial elections, he has considered but ultimately opted out of a run. Why?
Scott said he’s found his niche as a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and is particularly passionate about criminal justice issues — a matter he wouldn’t have the freedom to focus on if he were running a state.
And then there’s the burden of what goes with actually mounting a gubernatorial bid.
“I also didn’t want to spend the next eight months calling strangers for money,” Scott deadpanned.
There was a time in the black community when one’s career options were limited. The most talented individuals often became pastors, educators, doctors, lawyers and from that pool rose the politicians. But ambitious young African-Americans now don’t face the sort of exclusion from the lucrative corporate world that limited their parents and grandparents. So why make a solid but not spectacular salary in politics when one can go to Silicon Valley or Wall Street, become rich and still give something back to the community through philanthropy of volunteerism?
“That’s what I come up against talking to young folks,” lamented Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), a 48-year-old daughter of Selma who made her way to Princeton, Oxford and Harvard.
“Many folks in my generation are running businesses or on Wall Street because we have more economic possibilities than our predecessors,” said Sewell. “Where we can effect change is much broader.”
Further, young African-Americans, like their counterparts in other communities, see how tough politics can be on individuals and their families, particularly in the Internet age.
Cleaver said his 38-year-old son had a city council seat that was there for the taking but passed.
“He sees this as a vicious kind of business,” said the Missourian.
The CBC recognizes the challenge and is trying to build up a farm team. The CBC Institute runs an annual summer boot camp for around 50 young African-Americans who have expressed an interest in running for office or working on campaigns.
Angela Rye, the former executive director of the CBC, said it’s also incumbent on political operatives to put their money where their mouth is regarding diversity and to be more open to running African-Americans.
“At some point, if folks want to do something to ensure diverse numbers of senators and governors they’ve got to take some chances,” said Rye. “If there are assumptions made on their race or their gender, we’re not ever going to move forward.”