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The Think Tank That Thought It Could

By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page C01

This is what juice looks like on a Wednesday night.

Sen. Barack Obama is standing near the stage in a crowded ballroom at the Hilton Washington and everywhere he turns there's somebody hanging on a sleeve, reaching for his hand, smiling up at him, asking for an autograph, or to pose for just one picture, okay, maybe two -- to make sure. There's the man waiting to shake his hand and remind Obama that the Illinois Democrat taught law to the guy's son back in Chicago.

Sen. Barack Obama working the table and Dorothy Height working her charms at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies dinner. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

There's the ever-elegant Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence magazine, leaning in to ask the onetime "skinny kid with the funny name," "Just how does it feel to be a rock star?"

Juice. Yeah, he's got it. But the sweetest Washington elixir is when a man of the moment, like Obama, is standing in that ballroom because he's come to pay tribute to you.

In last night's case, the "you" was the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the think tank that opened its doors 35 years ago to offer resources and research to African American politicians just gaining their political legs. It was 1970, five years after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Since then, it's grown into the go-to think tank on African American political thought, as well as a range of other issues, from health care to criminal justice and now Social Security.

"If knowledge is power, then the Joint Center is empowering all of us," Obama told the more than 700 people attending the annual dinner, where guest after guest talked about the importance of the voting rights law that changed the political landscape, not just for African Americans but for the entire country. They came in their power suits and power hats -- longtime civil rights activist Dorothy Height was there -- and they dined on crab cakes, beef and vegetables. A cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock had the crowd on its feet with songs of social justice. In a videotaped presentation former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali was honored with the center's Great American Award.

The evening raised more than $1 million and doubled as something of a welcoming party for Togo D. West Jr., the center's president and CEO as of December. West, who served in three presidential administrations and sits on several boards, is the kind of Washington insider who's so smooth, and so seasoned from years of working this city's machinery, that juice in his case can be only one thing: cognac.

He glided through the crowd, working it with ease and grace, in his dark pinstripe suit and French cuffs.

"The mission of the center will remain the same," West said, "to assure justice and fair play." It will continue its work with black elected officials, he said, but also emphasize issues that affect all Americans, such as health care and Social Security.

Times have certainly changed since those early years, Obama, West and a host of guests noted last night. In 1965, 280 elected officials were African Americans. By 1970, when the Joint Center opened, there were 1,469. Today, there are about 9,500.

David Bositis, the Joint Center's senior researcher, notes black candidates are being elected to Congress from districts without a black majority -- in Wisconsin, Texas and Missouri last year -- and that there are record numbers of black members in state legislatures, the springboards to national political office.

For example, he notes that for the first time in a single election, four blacks were candidates for the U.S. Senate in 2004. "That's significant," Bositis says, adding that "the fact that the Republicans even want to make an effort to appear to be more interested in courting African Americans suggests things have changed."

In phone interviews yesterday, Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) agreed that the picture is looking better for African American candidates but that some challenges remain entrenched.

"I think things are continuing to move . . . and racial attitudes are continuing to change in selected cases and selected states and with outstanding candidates such as Barack Obama," Watt said, " . . . but race is still a factor in just about every state and just about every race and sometimes you can overcome the negative impact of that as a factor, sometimes you can't."

Steele, who is weighing a run for the Senate from Maryland, where former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume already has declared his bid to be the Democratic nominee for Paul Sarbanes's seat, says, "I'm looking around the country and seeing more and more people getting in the race for governor, for the Senate. . . . And that's very encouraging. . . . The next task is to get them elected."

At last night's dinner, former congressman Ron Dellums acknowledged that things were definitely different from when he was first elected so many years ago. "When I walked through the door there were 13 of us" in the Congressional Black Caucus. "Now there are 43."

But then, as he was being hurried along by aides eager to get him to the head table, he looked over his shoulder to make one more point. "When I walked through the door we had the audacity to think we were representing a movement. People now are 'elected officials.' "

Juice with punch.

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