RALEIGH, DEC. 7 -- One month after North Carolina voters reelected Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in one of the most racially divisive campaigns in recent memory, Democratic members of the state House of Representatives today chose the first black speaker of a southern legislature since Reconstruction.
The nomination of Daniel T. Blue, 41, a soft-spoken lawyer who grew up in segregated Robeson County and went on to earn a reputation as an effective coalition-builder, is the latest in a series of complex, and often contradictory, developments in the politics of race in the South.
Blue, who stressed that his goal is to put together winning majorities in the 120-member North Carolina House, today played down the racial aspects of his nomination. In his acceptance speech to the Democratic House caucus, Blue referred to the need to bring together "young and old, urban and rural, coastal and plain, Piedmont and mountain, rich and poor," but did not refer to black and white.
In the past two years, three blacks have made major bids for statewide office in the South, a region experiencing both an increasingly powerful black electorate and a steadily growing Republican Party. The results of those contests reflect a wide range of accommodation and sophistication by members of both races.
Voters in North Carolina cast just over 47 percent of their votes for former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in his campaign against Helms, significantly more than many worried Democrats thought Gantt, who is black, would get. Although he lost, Gantt's Senate bid did not damage other Democratic candidates, and it stands in contrast to the devastating effects of the 1984 candidacies of James Hunt running for Senate and Walter F. Mondale running for president.
That year, the number of state Senate Republicans doubled from six to 12, and the number of House Republicans shot up from 18 to 38 -- and many more Republicans would have been elected if the GOP had bothered to field candidates in a host of other districts. With Gantt at the top of the ticket this year, Democrats won all of the closely contested statewide judicial races and the party actually picked up seven seats in the state House.
Next door, however, in South Carolina, the attempt of black state Sen. Theo Mitchell to take on Republican Gov. Carroll A. Campbell Jr. turned out to be a disaster that may have done lasting damage to the Democratic Party. Mitchell, nominated in a primary despite the view of many white and black politicians that he was not a strong candidate, got only 29 percent of the vote in the general election in the once solid Democratic state.
In Virginia, in contrast, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder demonstrated with his election in 1989 that a black candidate can win statewide in the South, and Wilder is now exploring the possibility of a presidential bid.
Asked if he saw any significance in his nomination -- and expected election by the full legislature on Jan. 30 -- and the defeat of Gantt, Blue noted, after some prodding, that "the campaign for speaker is different from a statewide campaign."
Others were less reluctant to voice their views.
"I am sure you have some prejudice and I have some prejudice," said State Rep. Daniel T. Lilley, a 70-year-old conservative white Democrat first elected in 1968 during the height of school integration battles. "But we are blending together. We have burned some bridges behind us." Asked how the white voters in his rural, East Carolina district will react to the selection of a black House speaker, Lilley said, "I think they will realize we have to recognize ability and not let color be a decisive factor."
In nominating Blue, State Rep. Thomas C. Hardaway, of Halifax county, who is black, cited the past generations of blacks who because of segregation and discrimination could not exercise political power. "Well, Dan," he said, "it's your turn now . . . for those whose names have not been called."
Many Democrats see Blue as a potential candidate for statewide office in coming years. "He is on the same track that Doug Wilder was on, working his way up, developing all sorts of friendships and loyalties," said Thad Beyle, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Blue, one of five children reared in the tobacco fields between Red Springs and Lumberton, went to all-black North Carolina Central College, where he majored in mathematics.
At Duke Law School, he won the school's moot court competition, and after working briefly for an establishment Raleigh law firm, started his own in 1976.
Four years later, Blue won a House seat running countywide in Raleigh's Wake County, which required that he win substantial support from white voters. In the legislature, he has repeatedly been named among the most effective members of the House in annual surveys of members, lobbyists and reporters.
According to the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, two other blacks have served as house speakers since Reconstruction: Willie Brown, who is now speaker in California, and K. Leroy Irvis, who was Pennsylvania speaker from 1977 to 1988.