Ruling May Lead Some Black Politicians to Reassess Campaign Strategy
By Kevin Merida
The Supreme Court sent a strong signal yesterday that black politicians who have relied on black voters for success may have to refashion their electoral strategies.
That assessment comes in the wake of yet another high court ruling striking down efforts to boost the voting clout of racial and ethnic minorities. The decision left Georgia with only one majority-black voting district, which means black candidates who want to win office will have to do so mostly by battling it out in predominantly white districts.
"I think the bottom line," said Democratic pollster Ron Lester, "is if you are a black candidate and running in the South you have to be the kind of candidate who can attract white votes, because the overwhelming number of majority-African American congressional districts is shrinking. And the number will continue to shrink given the rulings coming out of the Supreme Court."
Yesterday's ruling marked the fifth time in the last four years that a closely divided court ruled against black or Hispanic interests and endorsed challenges by white voters who have argued that the race-based configurations of these districts amounted to discrimination against them.
Lester, who has done extensive polling in majority-black districts, said the ruling reflects "the second Reconstruction phase of our country's history that is characterized by rollbacks and take-aways."
As President Clinton attempts to make race central to his legacy, polling continues to show black and white Americans have starkly different views about efforts like creation of majority-minority voting districts to remedy historic patterns of racial exclusion. The irony in yesterday's ruling is that the black lawmakers directly affected by it Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) both won reelection contests last year in the majority-white districts the Supreme Court upheld.
This pattern was repeated with other black lawmakers whose districts were redrawn before the last election, including Reps. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). The result was that there was no drop in the number of black House members 37, excluding the delegates from the Virgin Islands and the District as a result of redistricting challenges.
But lawmakers like McKinney and Bishop had the principal advantage that had long eluded black candidates before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 incumbency. With that comes a sizable campaign war chest and a relationship with constituents.
In the cases of McKinney and Bishop, said Lester, the question is, "Could another African American have won in either of those districts? I doubt it."
Both McKinney's and Bishop's districts are about 35 percent black.
Merle Black, an expert on southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta, said he does not believe the Supreme Court's repeated disapproval of race-based congressional districts will kill opportunities for black candidates.
It just may mean a different set of calculations at the state legislative level, he said. Instead of moving to create more majority-black districts, as they did after the 1990 census, Black said state legislatures may in the next decade try to create 40 percent black districts.
"When you get up in that 40 percent range, a black candidate only needs 15 to 20 percent of the white vote to win, which means an opposing white candidate would have to get 80 to 85 percent of the white vote to win," said Black. "That's a very high hurdle for a white candidate to cross. So black candidates will still stand a good chance of winning in those districts."
The reactions to yesterday's decision say a lot about the alignments in Democratic politics in Georgia. For example, Georgia Democratic Party Chairman John Blackmon was almost celebratory, saying the state party will be "pleased to run in the districts upheld by the court" in 1998 and takes "great pride that two incumbent minority House members were reelected in majority-white districts."
Bishop, who has never criticized a federal judicial panel's 1995 decision to scrap two majority-black districts, was subdued. "The Supreme Court has spoken and I look forward to continuing to work for the people of the 2nd Congressional District," he said. Bishop is perhaps the most conservative black Democrat in Congress and the one some analysts suggest may be most susceptible to a GOP challenge.
McKinney, who has tenaciously battled efforts to roll back majority-black congressional districts, said the Supreme Court justices "blindly shut their eyes to equality and fairness" and their decision means the next century will begin "with the certainty of bitter wars in southern legislatures for the right of all people to be represented."
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