Black politicians gaining little capital after Obama's election

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; 5:27 PM

Eighteen months after Barack Obama's presidential win seemed to usher in a new era in racial politics, a different reality has emerged: Black candidates in races around the country are struggling so much that the number of African Americans in major statewide offices is likely to drop from the already paltry three. And the possibility exists that there will be no black governors or senators by next year.

The drubbing Tuesday of Rep. Artur Davis (D), who was running to be the first black governor of Alabama, was the latest in a series of defeats of black politicians in primaries this year for statewide office. And some of the blacks who already hold such posts aren't staying in them. Of the nation's two black governors, New York's David Paterson, plagued by ethics scandals, opted not to run this fall -- the same decision made by the only black senator, Roland Burris (D-Ill.).

Aspiring black politicians, such as Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who is running for the Senate, are underdogs in general election races. The only African American favored to win a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate seat is Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), who is running for a second term. And while a number of black Republicans are running, many of them are losing in primaries as well, and the number of black members of the GOP in Congress could be zero.

The defeats illustrate that Obama's victory, at least for now, did not signal greater success for other black politicians. The majority of black politicians in Washington are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, representing districts that are disproportionately liberal and African American, making it difficult for them to build broader coalitions of supporters to win a statewide race. Historically, only two blacks, including Patrick, have been elected to governorships, and only six blacks, including Obama and Burris, have served in the U.S. Senate.

"We have had breakthroughs, but the obstacles are still there," said Christopher Edley, who was special adviser to the president for the President's Initiative on Race in the Clinton administration and is now dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. "The bench is weak. If you look at lower office levels or state legislatures, I think the picture is dramatically better, but we haven' t been able to bring enough people up from there."

The losses don't have one single unifying factor. Davis struggled to woo white voters in the primary electorate but couldn't galvanize blacks, either. He lost to his white opponent, Alabama insurance commissioner Ron Sparks, in some overwhelmingly African American counties. Burris's connections to former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) likely doomed his candidacy the moment he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Obama.

Ken Lewis, a black lawyer and former Obama fundraiser who ran for the Senate in North Carolina, finished third in last month's Democratic primary there, facing both a popular Democratic official, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, and another candidate, Cal Cunningham, who was backed by party officials in Washington who considered him more electable. Cheryle Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully in Illinois for the Democratic nomination, was defeated by state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who had won statewide already and had a big fundraising advantage.

But there are some common threads. Doubts about viability have limited Democratic enthusiasm about Meek in Florida, and Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who is running for the Senate. Even Jerome Gray, an African American who had helped run Obama's 2008 campaign in Alabama, decided to help Sparks, instead of Davis, arguing that the congressman had little chance of winning a general election in a southern, conservative state like Alabama.

Black voters and activists, perhaps because of doubts about the black candidates' ability to win, have not rallied around these candidates as they did Obama.

Black voters "are so invested personally in Barack Obama the man, and it's unique to him," said Cornell Belcher, an African American pollster who worked on the Obama campaign. "They are invested in him in a way they are not in other black political leaders."

While the primary process is thinning the ranks of black candidates, a few remain. Patrick, who won in 2006 on the strength of backing from white liberal activists in a state with a small black population, has a double-digit lead in Massachusetts. Meek could benefit from a three-way Florida race in which two of the candidates, Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, and GOP candidate Marco Rubio, could split the conservative vote.

"There were a lot of people who were in fantasy land about black candidates all of sudden getting elected to all of these offices," said David Bositis, who studies black political trends at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "But in most years, there are only a handful of Senate seats that are truly competitive, and a lot of people want these seats. And given this is going to be a favorable year for Republicans, the notion that it was going to a great year for African American candidates, it just wasn't going to happen."


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