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Obama Rises in New Era Of Black Politicians
Most Have Similar Résumés, Ideology

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.

Yet, with their elite credentials and conciliatory tone, they are hardly anti-establishment figures. Obama and Booker were introduced three years ago by Gayle King, Oprah Winfrey's best friend, and Winfrey has become one of Obama's most influential boosters. Patrick collected early support from top Democrats in Massachusetts who admired his résumé as a Coca-Cola executive and assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration.

"In so much of the work I've done, I've found that you had to put people at ease on the question of race before you could even start to talk about what you were doing," Patrick said. "I don't fit a certain expectation that some people have about black men. And I don't mean that as anything other than an observation about my life."

Massachusetts, which is 6 percent black, has a history of racial tension, and Patrick avoided casting his candidacy in racial terms, focusing instead on building a vigorous statewide campaign organization. Looking back, Patrick, who has not endorsed anyone for president, attributed his wide margin of victory simply to voters' desire for change.

But, observers say, his race almost certainly reinforced his message that he was a different kind of candidate -- and gave voters the chance to feel that they were making some history in the process. His uplifting rhetoric recalled that used by Obama in his 2004 Senate run -- no surprise, perhaps, given that the men both employed strategist David Axelrod, who is also a top adviser to Obama's current run.

"If race was a factor in the gubernatorial race, it was a positive factor" for Patrick, said Boston attorney Wayne Budd, an African American who backed one of Patrick's opponents in the Democratic primary. "The phenomenon was: This guy appears to be very able, and it's a plus to be black."

Payne, the Democratic strategist, predicted that a similar dynamic could fuel Obama in New Hampshire, where he is seeking to convince voters that he would offer a clearer break from the past than would Clinton. The state's Democratic electorate is increasingly dominated by the kind of highly educated, liberal professionals who powered Patrick's candidacy and who, according to polls, appear to be most drawn to Obama.

"When I was advising Deval, I told him: You don't have to say you're different. When you walk into the room, they know you're different," Payne said. "It's the same with Obama -- he doesn't have to stress that he's a unique figure. He just is. In the way he speaks and handles himself, he can be a little edgy and a little reassuring at the same time."

At the same time, Obama, like others in this cohort, must also win the black vote. And the fact that most of them didn't participate in the civil rights movement or rise through the ranks of community activism, along with the strong support that they have received from white backers, has made some blacks nervous about them. Fenty has been attacked for not having enough black cabinet members.

The challenge of winning over African American voters has been particularly acute for Booker, who, after losing a bruising bid in 2002, ran a second time last year and replaced longtime Newark mayor Sharpe James, also African American, who first came onto the city's political scene in 1970, a year after Booker was born. As someone who grew up in an affluent New Jersey suburb, the son of two IBM executives, and who received large campaign donations from Yale contacts and Wall Street, Booker found himself branded as an outsider by James. To establish his urban bona fides, Booker lived for several years in Newark public housing.

Since taking office, Booker has won praise from residents glad to have James gone, but also has had to contend with discontent among James loyalists and city workers upset about the cutbacks Booker has made to right the city's finances. His staunchest opponents have launched a recall effort.

"There was this next generation that was born in the late 1960s who are sometimes bumping into those established black leaders," said Booker, who is expected to run for governor or senator if he succeeds as mayor. "We're all part of this group of the second generation of African American politicians and that has led to some very tough conflict."

Obama has faced similar questions as he competes for the black vote with Clinton, who commands strong support among African Americans, in part because of her husband. At a debate this week, Obama was asked if he was "authentically black." In response, he referred to his experience being a black man in New York trying to hail a cab but then gave a broader answer about the need to "get beyond some of our racial divisions."

The rivalry for African American support is playing out most clearly in South Carolina, the first state in the primary process with a large black population. Polls show Clinton and Obama running close.

To capture the state's black vote, Obama's campaign has launched one-minute spots on 36 black and gospel stations. Aides say they will stress Obama's experience as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, where he worked with black churches, and will release a list of African American endorsers, which will include Fenty and Booker, as well as former Clinton administration officials such as Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney general.

But other black elected officials have sided with Clinton, among them Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, plus luminaries such as business mogul Robert L. Johnson and poet Maya Angelou.

As the Obama campaign sees it, though, that's both the opportunity and the challenge for Obama, along with the rest of the new generation of black candidates. Unlike Jackson's presidential run in 1988, when he won primaries in five southern states in part because nearly all black voters backed him, Obama can't count on African Americans to support him simply because of racial solidarity. On the other hand, because whites aren't voting simply on racial solidarity, either, he has a chance to win the Democratic nomination and the election.

"There's a natural suspicion within the black community in general of a candidate like Barack Obama who can transcend race," said Rick Wade, an Obama adviser in South Carolina. At the same time, he said, "I heard an older lady talk about how proud she is of Barack Obama and [his wife] Michelle. The historical context of what this means is very, very important."

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