News Column

The 'Obama Effect' on Race in Politics: Not a Whole Lot

January 21, 2013

By Susan Page

Politics

Since Barack Obama was inaugurated on the west Capitol steps four years ago, a dramatic 30-foot memorial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has been unveiled at the other end of the National Mall.

But a key part of the political landscape President Obama will survey as he is sworn in for a second term -- that is, the number of black officials in top elective offices -- hasn't changed a bit.

Obama's groundbreaking election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012 undeniably has affected the nation's racial politics, proving it's possible for an African American to win the nation's highest office and raising the aspirations of some black candidates. He sparked record turnout in two elections among African-American voters.

"One of the many things significant that happened when this president was elected: It gave a much larger group of people an opportunity to be unburdened by who has traditionally done what," says Kamala Harris, who in 2010 became the first woman and first black elected attorney general of California.

"There's a bigger ripple than we tend to assign to it," says Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and president of the NAACP.

In the admittedly short four years since the 2008 election, however, the Obama effect hasn't been reflected in more black candidates actually winning election to the Senate, the House and the nation's governorships. At the intersection of today's events -- the federal holiday honoring King and the public inauguration of a black president for a second term -- the path to the top jobs in American politics seems as steep as ever.

"There were definitely people who were inspired to run for statewide office because of Barack Obama's success," says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America. "They saw it as a sign that America's racial politics were softening to the point blacks could make more credible runs for statewide office. But we haven't seen the materialization of that dream."

By the numbers:

There was one black governor when Obama was inaugurated in 2009. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is still the only African-American governor in office and just the second since Reconstruction.

There were no elected black U.S. senators in 2009; there still aren't today. Then, Roland Burris had been appointed to fill Obama's Senate seat in Illinois. Now, Tim Scott of South Carolina has been appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jim DeMint last month.

There were 39 African Americans elected to the House of Representatives in 2008, not including delegates. There were 42 elected in 2012.

Fifty years ago, when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, there were five black members of the House and none in the Senate.

This month marks what Taylor Branch, author of a three-volume history of the civil rights movement, calls the "poignant" overlap of epic anniversaries: 150 years since President Lincoln in January 1863 signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Fifty years since George Wallace in January 1963 was sworn in as governor of Alabama, infamously vowing "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." And now, in January 2013, Obama sworn in for a second term, his hand on Bibles once used by Lincoln and King.

"We are kidding ourselves to think we've gotten over race," Branch says. It is still a "fraught" subject he says most Americans prefer to avoid. Whatever remains to be done, however, he calls the convergence of historic anniversaries a signal of breathtaking change.

If King had lived to age 84 to see this day, "he would take a great deal of pride in watching President Obama raise his hand to take the oath," Mfume speculates. Still, he says King likely also would have been raising his voice on issues of racism and poverty that persist.

Ironies of 'the Obama effect'

One irony of the Obama effect is that it may have been a bigger boon so far for black hopefuls who are Republican, even though the president and the majority of black officeholders and voters are Democratic.

In the face of Obama's success, some GOP leaders have seized opportunities to demonstrate that their party is open to minorities. Mia Love, a small-town mayor running for Congress in Utah last year, won a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in August; the black woman lost narrowly in November. Florida Gov. Rick Scott chose state legislator Jennifer Carroll, also a black woman, as his running mate for lieutenant governor in 2010.

In South Carolina last month, GOP Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Tim Scott, the first black Republican congressman from the state, to the U.S. Senate when DeMint resigned to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"The fact that Tim Scott was picked in South Carolina -- I mean, the Republicans realized that they have a diversity problem, and I think that has been driven home by the coalition the president has put together," says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report. "If (Republican presidential nominee) Mitt Romney had won this time, I don't know that Tim Scott would be in the Senate."

DeMint himself rejects any suggestions of racism in the GOP. "Frankly, I think it's a little bit of the opposite," the former senator said in an interview last week on Capital Download, a weekly video series on usatoday.com. "(When) we get a good, conservative African American running in the Republican Party, it is very welcome."

Scott already is raising money to run in the 2014 special election for the final two years of DeMint's term. That will test whether he can hold white Republican support and persuade some black Democratic voters to cross party lines in the South.

That's another irony: The region where most black voters live is the one where black candidates tend to have the hardest time winning top jobs. "If race weren't an issue in this country, the place you would expect to see African Americans elected to statewide office with African-American votes would be Southern states with large black populations," says David Bositis, an expert on minority voting and representation at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "But it's becoming a white, conservative, Republican-dominated area of the country, which means that African Americans, with a few exceptions, are out in terms of statewide office."

In the South, most African-American candidates are Democrats, most statewide officeholders are Republicans, and the electorate is more sharply polarized along racial lines than other parts of the country. Black legislators in the statehouse and Congress often represent districts that are mostly minority.

That has made it harder for some black officeholders to win bigger offices. "African-American majority districts, whether at the state level or the congressional level, tend to be terrible springboards for minority candidates," says David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "When these members of Congress represent hyper-liberal, hyper-minority districts, they're speaking to one audience. They're not getting the experience they need to speak with voters of varied ideological persuasions."

The states where black candidates tend to fare best include some with few black voters. Massachusetts, which in 2010 became the first state to re-elect a black governor, is just 7% African American, according to the Census.

The population of Denver, where Michael Hancock won election in 2010 to become the city's second black mayor, is 12% black. "On the local level, we're making tremendous progress," Hancock says. "We can find African-American elected officials even in non-African-American communities across the nation, Denver being one. But on the state level, we're still challenged with African Americans being elected to the U.S. Senate and to the governor's office."

Fundraising 'a big factor'

A rising generation of African-American officeholders is preparing to run for those jobs next year.

In New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, 43, has taken initial steps to run in 2014 for the U.S. Senate. The seat is held by Frank Lautenberg, although the 89-year-old incumbent, a fellow Democrat, hasn't said whether he plans to retire.

In Maryland, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is raising money to run for governor in 2014, an essential that he says remains hard for black candidates. "If you look at fundraising ability, you'll see a real disparity," he says. "That's a big factor."

Even so, he says, black politicians including himself are able to aspire to the highest jobs. "Is President Obama's presidency leading a trend or the result of a trend?" he asks. "It's probably a little bit of both."

Mfume was one of three credible black candidates who sought U.S. Senate seats in 2006 -- Ken Blackwell in Ohio, Harold Ford in Tennessee and Mfume in Maryland. None of them prevailed. In 2010, Kendrick Meek won the Democratic nomination for the Senate in Florida, though he ended up finishing third to Republican Marco Rubio and independent Charlie Crist.

"I think the Obama election in many ways parallels the election of Jack Kennedy," says Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State College. "Kennedy demonstrated that a Catholic could win, and then Catholics began to run." (Since Kennedy, however, no Catholic has won the White House.)

"The fact that a black man ran and was elected and was re-elected even in difficult times has to change a little bit of the national psyche about who can win and who can't," Rothenberg says. "It's tinkered with the conventional wisdom about black candidates in general."

The biggest Obama effect might be on children, black and white, whose formative memories will be of having an African-American president. For them, presumably, that seems unremarkable.

"For many, many young people, their experiences in grade school shape the decisions and beliefs about their future more than any other time or point in their lives," Brown says. His son was 8 years old when they went to watch Obama's inauguration four years ago. "He wasn't asking how was that possible," Brown recalls. "He just accepts that it is."



Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013


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