Fueling the Flames
Labor and greens must join forces to stop Bushs assault on the planet.
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
A New Detente?
The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs.
Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
Disasters in Waiting
BOOKS: Ahmed Rashid on more impending Jihad.
Play It Again, Sam
MUSIC: How multiple reissues keep record labels flush.
FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
Blacks on the Ballot
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
oland 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. Its 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 states primary. If I were to make a bet right now about whether
theres 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; thats
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 its 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
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 couldnt 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 dont 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 studys
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. Its 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 peoples 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. Its 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 skillsand
wider visibilityneeded 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 theyre 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
Oregons 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.
Maines 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
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 its 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 havent discouraged this bumper crop of aspirants.
And, if aspirations are a sign of progress, here we are.
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