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March 1, 2002
Blacks on the Ballot
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Roland Burris hugging supporter.
Former state Attorney General Roland Burris hugs a supporter after announcing his third run for Illinois governor.

Roland Burris, an African-American making his third run for governor of Illinois, is facing a familiar challenge. The former attorney general and state comptroller must find a way to excite his core black supporters without alienating the white voters he needs to win. Burris is a serious candidate in the gubernatorial primary because of bloc voting by the black electorate, which makes up about 25 percent of Democratic primary voters. But he must downplay this support lest he be accused of playing the “race card.” His white opponents, however, can proudly appeal to their ethnic supporters free from backlash. It’s a vexing dilemma, but one that most black candidates seeking a multiracial mandate must confront.

But more candidates seem willing to take on that challenge. African-American aspirants are running in seven gubernatorial primaries in 2002, more than ever before. Besides Burris, two other candidates have already been elected to statewide offices. In 1992, Jim Hill became the first African-American to hold statewide office in Oregon when he was elected state treasurer. Carl McCall earned the same distinction in New York when he was elected state comptroller in 1993.

The other candidates are state senators Daryl Jones of Florida, Gary George of Wisconsin and Alma Wheeler Smith of Michigan, all Democrats. John Jenkins, a former state senator and mayor from Maine, is running as an independent candidate in his state’s primary. “If I were to make a bet right now about whether there’s going to be a black governor next year,” says David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and one of the most knowledgeable observers of black politics, “I would put the odds at 1-in-10, or at best 2-in-10.”

While those are pretty long odds, they are much better than in years past. Many white voters remain reluctant to vote for black candidates; that’s one reason why former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was the lone elected black governor in U.S. history, and why there have been only two black senators (Edward R. Brooke of Massachusetts and Carol Mosely-Braun of Illinois) since Reconstruction.

The white electorate is often hostile to candidates who use the rhetoric of racial pride to pump up black voters. This tactic may make white voters uncomfortable, but it’s an outgrowth of the belief that black electoral empowerment is the next step in the civil rights movement. That belief helped transform many political campaigns into racial crusades and fueled hundreds of electoral victories; from less than 300 black elected officials in 1964 to nearly 9,000 in 2000. But it also has corralled black elected officials into parochial enclaves of political marginality.

White voters’ historical aversion to black candidates informed provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, following the 1990 Census, led to the creation of black-majority political districts. There was a wide consensus within the Justice Department that black candidates couldn’t win unless their districts contained electorates that were at least 65 percent black. That consensus held until Supreme Court rulings, beginning with Shaw v. Reno in 1993, began attacking the logic of racial redistricting.

Other opponents of the practice argued that racial redistricting made race-based politics a self-fulfilling prophecy. But supporters of black-majority districts insist there is little evidence whites are more willing to vote for black candidates now than in the past. “This country has a tremendous racial problem,” Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), who twice tried and failed to win statewide office, told USA Today. “We don’t like to admit that people are just more comfortable with people who look like them.”

Yet those attitudes may be changing. A study that appeared in the Emory Law Journal last year found that black congressional candidates “always got at least one white vote in five,” even in the Deep South. The study’s authors, Charles S. Bullock III of the University of Georgia and Richard E. Dunn of the College of Charleston, concluded that “the electorate is increasingly willing to vote for black candidates.”

That may partly explain the increase in black candidates. “This record number of black candidates is a very positive trend and represents the continuing political maturity of the African-American community,” notes Robert Starks, professor of political science and executive director of the newly formed Harold Washington Institute for Research and Policy Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. “It’s just a logical progression for black elected officials who have nowhere else to go, politically speaking.”

Starks contends that the inherent limitations of racial representation have compelled black candidates to widen their horizons. But will their wider focus force them to look beyond the special concerns of black Americans? And if it does, will newly emerging black politicians have any special relationship or obligation to their racial group? Should they? Starks argues that African-Americans’ unique history places uncommon obligations on black politicians. “Of course they must make wider appeals to broader constituencies,” he says, “but they must maintain the centrality of their people’s interests.”

So black politicians seeking statewide office must master the choreography of contemporary politics. “Modern politicians learn how to tailor their message to differing constituencies without being charged with duplicity,” Bositis explains. “It’s a subtle dance they all learn from experience they gain in the field.”

As black politicians increasingly win what Bositis calls “feeder” offices (like attorney general and secretary of state) they will gain the skills—and wider visibility—needed to win a gubernatorial or Senate seat. Black candidates also must raise enough money to compete with the well-heeled candidates they often face. This is a particularly daunting problem because their political base lacks wealthy contributors and a tradition of political donations. And African-American candidates, especially black men, must be relentlessly reassuring to win over a multiracial constituency. “More black women have been elected to statewide office,” Bositis says, “because they’re not as threatening.”

As for the current black gubernatorial candidates, neither Starks, Bositis nor any other political pundit gives them much of a chance even to win their primary races. Burris and McCall are the strongest candidates. Both men have held statewide offices that are concerned with budgetary issues, another important element. Illinois has a black population of a bit more than 15 percent, and New York is nearly 16 percent black. Both men are the kind of “crossover” candidates who once were derided by militant advocates of black political empowerment. Neither candidate is “tainted” by activist pasts, yet both still depend on a solid and disproportionate bloc of black voters. However, both are pitted against strong opponents in the primaries and, should they win, in the general election.

Oregon’s Jim Hill fits the same mold as Burris and McCall, having been elected twice as state treasurer. But Hill is running in a state that has a black population of barely 2 percent. All of the other candidates are long shots, Bositis contends, but they are laying important groundwork for future campaigns. “Maine has incredibly quirky politics and weird issues that seldom come up in other places,” he says. “So maybe Jenkins has a better chance.”

Maine’s black population is less than half of 1 percent. But some analysts have argued that states with the smallest African-American population ironically may stand the best chance of electing a black candidate statewide. Bositis agrees that race tends not to be an issue in states with small black populations. But, he notes, the probability that such a state will elect a black governor remains very small.

What will it take to elect another black governor or senator? Luck, in terms of political timing, quality of the opposition and the mood of the electorate, is an important element, Bositis insists. He points to the example of Carol Mosely-Braun, the former Illinois senator. In the 1992 Democratic primary, she ran against two white candidates, including incumbent Alan Dixon, who went after each other and split the vote. She also benefited from the backlash to the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the so-called Year of the Woman, which lured suburban female voters into her camp. On Election Day, she faced a weak Republican opponent. “Without those quirky elements it’s unlikely she would have won,” says Bositis, and, indeed, she lost her bid for re-election.

Many factors have to break right for a black candidate to succeed in a statewide race, but those long odds haven’t discouraged this bumper crop of aspirants. And, if aspirations are a sign of progress, here we are.


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