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Obama Rises in New Era Of Black Politicians

Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, right, poses for a photo with Matt Nixon of the Massachusetts Department of Education, after speaking at a volunteer expo this month in Boston.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, right, poses for a photo with Matt Nixon of the Massachusetts Department of Education, after speaking at a volunteer expo this month in Boston. (By Kevin Martin -- Associated Press)

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By Alec MacGillis and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 28, 2007

In the next few months, TV spots in New Hampshire will start promoting an African American candidate described as a rising star of a new generation, with Chicago roots, Ivy League credentials and a message of hope and idealism.

But Sen. Barack Obama's ads won't be the first such appeal heard in New Hampshire. Just one year ago, many voters who watch Boston television received a similar message from another youthful-looking black Democrat on the rise, Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Deval L. Patrick.

"To some extent, [Patrick] has laid the groundwork for Obama and the way he campaigns," said Dan Payne, a Boston-based Democratic strategist who briefly advised Patrick.

Although Obama (Ill.) has forged a path as the first African American with a serious chance of becoming president, his rise coincides with the emergence of a whole cohort of black politicians who share similar résumés and ideology. Raised in the post-civil rights era, they attended elite schools, built coalitions of white and black supporters, and cast themselves as agents of change, even if they were running to succeed other African Americans.

Their experiences, in turn, inform Obama's prospects in the months ahead.

In winning election as the first African American governor in Massachusetts, Patrick showed the appeal that a candidate with his background and message has for white New England liberals -- a potentially good omen for Obama in the New Hampshire primary.

But the experience of another black politician with a similar background -- Newark mayor Cory Booker, a Yale Law School graduate and a Rhodes Scholar whose relations with his African American constituents have been at times difficult -- gives a hint of the challenge that Obama faces in wresting black support from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

While the cohort is loosely defined, these leaders were born after 1950 and played little, if any, role in the civil rights movement that defined many senior members of Congress, such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), as well as Jesse Jackson, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry and many others.

Obama, 45, and Patrick, 50, are older members of the group, which also includes Philadelphia mayoral candidate Michael Nutter, a reform-minded graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and the current mayor of Washington, Adrian M. Fenty, who won every precinct in a city often polarized by race. A few are on Capitol Hill, such as Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who attended Harvard Law School with Obama. Another black Harvard Law graduate, Anthony G. Brown, is Maryland's lieutenant governor.

"There's a huge generational moment in the country where people are looking for the next generation to take its rightful role . . . and we represent the next generation to take some responsibility," Patrick said in an interview.

To be sure, there are crucial differences within the group. Obama's father was Kenyan, and he was raised by his white mother and grandparents in Hawaii. Patrick was raised by a single mother in a Chicago tenement and is more liberal than Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, a former congressman who lost a close race for Senate last year and now chairs the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

But the similarities in their ascents are clear. With their relative youth and lack of experience, and facing opponents who tended to have much of the party infrastructure behind them, these candidates have often presented themselves as outsiders and forces for change. Running against Clinton, Obama, too, is battling against a candidate with more party backing.


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