ON NOV. 2, our most populous state will elect
either the nation's first black or its first Armenian American governor. New York, in its election for governor, will choose between the son of an Italian immigrant who dug ditches and pushed a pushcart until he could start a grocery store, and the grandson of a Jewish immigrant who began with nothing and started a successful wholesale grocery business. In its election for senator, New York will choose between a man named Moynihan and a woman named Sullivan. In Ohio, the Democratic candidate for governor is of Italian descent; in Minnesota he is of Croatian descent; in Massachusetts he is of Greek descent, as is the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida. The incumbent governor of Oregon is of Syrian descent, and the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut is of Lebanese descent.
Twenty years ago, any of these facts would have elicited lengthy comment in the press. Today, they are scarcely noted. Political analysts still tell us it helps in winning, for example, "the Italian vote" to be of Italian descent. Perhaps. But our sense is that ethnic identity is at most a threshold advantage: it may bring a candidate initially to the favorable attention of a voter with a similar background, but it does not cinch the case.
Twenty years ago, the nation had just elected its first Catholic president in a contest in which millions of votes were affected by religion. It was unthinkable that voters in a major state would elect a black governor, and it was highly unusual for a candidate whose ethnic background was not Northern European to vie for a major office. There are still some psychological barriers: it is probably true that some California voters are uncomfortable with the idea of a black governor and will vote against Tom Bradley for that reason; but it is also true that Mr. Bradley's opponent's campaign manager was fired for saying so.
The decline in ethnic consciousness deprives us of a certain spice, but it also shows our maturity as a nation. Any boy -- or girl -- really can dream of growing up to be governor, and maybe even president. We are coming to see ethnicity as even a positive factor, one that may impart strength to a candidate, and not as a drag.