African-Americans and Statewide Offices

Belated props to The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie for his important article on the virtual absence of viable African-American candidates for governor and senator this year (Jonathan Bernstein beat me to the punch with his reaction, crossposted on our site).

Here’s the sad but salient fact:

In a year when the first black president is running for re-election, the only African American bidding for a top statewide office is Maryland state Senator C. Anthony Muse, who is challenging Ben Cardin—a well-liked incumbent—in a hopeless race for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination. At most, by the end of 2012, two of the nation’s 150 governors and senators will be African American.

Bouie notes that African-Americans are represented in the U.S. House at near-proportionate levels, and much of the piece explores why they don’t run statewide and tend to lose when they do. To some extent, black pols are caught in a trap: responsibly representing heavily-African-American (and thus, in many cases, unusually liberal) districts makes them less viable in statewide contests. Some may remember that Barack Obama made a fateful choice (after losing a House primary) in his own career between aiming at the Chicago mayor’s office or at statewide office, which also involved a choice of issues to be emphasized, rhetoric to be deployed, and intermediate positions to seek. And there are just enough examples of African-Americans abandoning relatively safe House seats to run doomed statewide races (e.g., Georgia’s Denise Majette in 2004) to discourage others.

Bouie recounts some of the major “near-misses” of statewide African-American candidacies of the past, notably Harvey Gantt’s two close losses to Jesse Helms in NC and (more briefly) Harold Ford’s equally close loss to Bob Corker in TN. In both, overt racial appeals by opponents played a significant role. Still, Bouie says:

Despite the attacks that took down Gantt and Ford, outright racism isn’t the main reason that keeps African Americans locked out of the highest statewide positions. Rather, it’s the accumulated effects of long-term racial discrimination—the limitations associated with representing heavily black House districts or leading majority-black cities—that block further advancement. If black politicians almost always represent black constituencies, it’s because of historic housing patterns shaped by discrimination. If black constituencies are typically less affluent than their white counterparts, it’s because more African Americans are still in low-income brackets, another product of discrimination.

This vicious cycle will be very hard to break, despite Obama’s example.

As a white southern Democrat, I spent many years longing for a statewide breakthrough in my region that would make durable biracial coaltions possible and end the practice of perpetually expecting black voters to back white Democrats–but rarely if ever expecting the reverse to occur. Georgia did, for a while, look like promising ground. Andrew Young ran a viable gubernatorial race in 1990, losing in a runoff to Zell Miller (who, frankly, ran a better campaign and actually attracted some black support) while finishing ahead of a future governor, Roy Barnes. Two African-Americans, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, repeatedly won statewide in the late 90s and throughout the “oughts,” but both chose the terrible year of 2010 to run for higher office (an underfunded Baker lost to a Barnes comeback bid in the Democratic gubernatorial primary; Thurmond won the Democratic nomination to the Senate but predictably lost to Republican incumbent Johnny Isakson). The steady drift of white southern voters into the GOP (more advanced in some states than others) has made it easier for African-Americans to win primaries, but harder to win general elections. And in some states, as demonstrated by former AL congressman Artur Davis’s failed 2010 gubernatorial campaign, measures taken to make an African-American candidate acceptable to white conservatives (voters and funders alike) can alienate black voters sufficiently to earn defeat. It all sometimes seems like an endless Catch-22.

In a follow-up article, Bouie takes a look at the phenomenon of black conservative Republicans, and suggests the GOP might actually be a better avenue for African-American politicians to win statewide–or at least to attract white voters. But there’s a rather obvious cost, aside from the indignity of African-Americans becoming little more than advertisements for the racial tolerance of conservatives towards people of color who pass every ideological litmus test:

Which is more important: racial diversity in higher offices or effective representation of minority interests? Black Republican officeholders add diversity to our political system. But it’s also true that black lawmakers who represent white constituencies have no history of supporting measures that equalize economic opportunity or improve public education and social services upon which African Americans disproportionately rely.

We’re probably at a bad moment of political history to assess the future prospects of African-Americans for high statewide office, and I’m sure that there are future stars moving up lower rungs of the career ladder who are as unknown nationally today as Barack Obama was ten years ago. But perhaps because Obama has shattered the highest “glass ceiling” (at the unavoidable cost, of course, of maintaining it for women), those remaining seem all the more intolerable.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.