Whites are Increasingly Competitive in Black Districts
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 9/6/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Democrats’ quest to regain control of the U. S. Congress may rise or fall on what happens to African-Americans in some predominantly Black districts, especially when the vote is divided, according to some political experts.
“In the general election, they just look at who is the Republican or the Democrat. In the primary, if you’re going to have a White member, it’s usually one of two circumstances,” explains David Bositis, a senior researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
“One is that the White member is particularly influential in the state legislature and delivers good constituent service so that people get contracts and things that they want.
The other is you have an election in which you have one White candidate and a lot of Black candidates. And then, the Black candidates split the Black vote and the White candidate gets White support and they win.”
And that’s happening more than some realize.
In Tennessee, a White Democrat, State Sen. Steve Cohen, won the August 3 Democratic primary in the 9th House District currently held by Congressman Harold Ford, who is running for the U. S. Senate. He will be the first White Democratic contender for the seat in the general election in more than 30 years.
Cohen had 23,515 votes (31 percent), to Black labor relations executive Nikki Tinker's 19,103 votes (25 percent).
Thirteen other Democrats ran to succeed Ford, who is vacating the seat he inherited from his father in 1997. His father, Harold Ford Sr., had held the seat for 22 years. Ford’s brother, Jake, is considering running for the seat as an independent, but has not yet filed for the seat.
Similarly, the 11th Congressional District of New York, currently held by 24-year veteran Major Owens, may also be lost to a White Democrat on Sept. 12. Owens, who is retiring, has anointed his son, political activist Chris Owens, as his successor. But Chris Owens is trailing two other candidates in the race, one of whom is White.
New York City Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, who is Black, had been the slight favorite in the four-way race until it was discovered last week that she doesn’t have a college degree as she had claimed. Clarke said after she was allowed to walk in the commencement exercises at Oberlin College in Ohio 20 years ago, but that she’d forgotten that she had been short two classes.
White City Councilman David Yassky, in a close second behind Clarke, now appears to be the front-runner. Owens is trailing Clark and Yassky, just ahead of the fourth candidate, State Sen. Carl Andrews, who is also Black.
“As those three Black candidates split the vote, there is a very good chance that the White candidate will get the nomination,” says David Bositis, a senior researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
White Democrats defeating Blacks in majority Black Districts are rare, says Bositis. In Congress, there is only one White representative of a majority Black District. That’s Robert Brady of Pennsylvania’s 1st District, encompassing Philadelphia. Brady won the seat in a district that is 51 percent White after 17-year incumbent Thomas M. Foglietta resigned to become ambassador to Italy. No Black has ever held the seat.
Though Owens could lose in New York, Bositis says the Democratic competition is healthy; especially since there appears to be a trend of Black Caucus members trying to will their seats for their sons.
Like Ford in Tennessee, U. S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-Mo.) was elected in 2001 to succeed his father, William Lacy Clay, Sr. when he retired after 32 years.
Sometimes the sons succeeded because of their family name.
With no opposition, Kendrick Meek was elected to succeed his mother, Carrie in Florida's majority Black 17th House Distict in 2003. She had served for 10 years.
Because of past history of racial discrimination in the U. S., federal law requires that elected representatives reapportion political districts after every 10-year census count, in part, to insure maximum Black participation in federal, state and local districts.
For example, in the recent U. S. Supreme Court case, League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, the court upheld the state’s redistricting plan except Congressional District 23.
The court ruled on June 28 that the district was in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which disallows political parties to draw district lines based on their advantage to win.
Republicans, largely led by then Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) had tried to create a majority of the seats to the advantage of Republicans. The court required lawmakers to adjust the boundaries to conform with the Court's decision. Delay is now retired.
As the Sept. 12 Democratic primaries approach, Bositis says it is rare to find a majority Black state House or Senate district represented by a White lawmaker.
“There are relatively few. The number is very, very small,” he says. But they do exist.
Patricia Todd, a White lesbian in Montgomery, Alabama’s 54th House District, defeated Black businesswoman Gaynell Hendricks 95-87 in a largely racially divided run off vote July 18.
Todd, an AIDS activist, has become Alabama's first openly gay legislator after the state’s Democratic Executive Committee overruled an earlier subcommittee decision that disqualified both candidates, accusing them of having failed to file their campaign finance reports with the party leadership. The ruling was reversed after Todd’s lawyers successfully argued that the filing requirement was superseded by Alabama law, which only requires candidates to file the forms with the secretary of state. Also, the law had not been enforced in recent years.
Even districts with highly-educated, affluent voters have problems electing an African-American.
Rev. Bobby Henry, a Black trial lawyer, minister, and former Army major is in a contentious battle for the state Senate in the 63 percent majority Black Prince George’s County in Maryland. He is running against County Council member Douglas J. J. Peters, a White business consultant. Prince George’s is considered the nation's most affluent majority-Black county with a median household income of $55,256.
The district, majority Black only since the 2002 redistricting, is currently represented by White incumbent Leo Green, who is retiring after more than 30 years in the Maryland General Assembly.
Voters will now have a chance to elect its first Black representative from a race in which the Black and White leading contenders appear to care about the same issues, but from two different perspectives.
“I’m seeing the crime first-hand. I’m seeing the problems of a school system that is underperforming grossly and is resulting in all types of criminal behavior,” says Henry, a graduate of Prince George’s public schools. These issues, they touch home for me. These are my friends, my family, my neighbors. These are people whom I have known all my life. I have prepared for this job all of my life, to return to your community and to be able to lead your community.”
Peters, a White Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm, is a graduate of Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools. He says he doesn’t think the racial aspect matters to voters.
“I think people are going to vote for people who get results whether or not you are Black or White or Hispanic,” says Peters. “People are going to go for the person they believe is going to get the job done.”
Blacks who elect Whites in majority Black districts do so for several reasons, says Bositis, one being a lack of political knowledge by constituents. “Less than a quarter of the people in the country can name their U. S. House member,” he says.
“So, you can imagine that is even less so with their state representative.”
Henry is hoping this will not work against him.
Because Henry nearly defeated Green in the 2002 Democratic Primary with 45 percent of the vote, and Peters currently serves on the County Council, they are considered the leading contenders for Green’s seat. A third candidate, Greg Holmes, a Black project manager and political newcomer, remains in the race, but is not considered close to a front-runner but could take votes from Henry.
Though not all African-American politicians are strong advocates for issues that affect Blacks, Bositis says Black candidates are usually the choice in Black districts because of the perception that they will be more sensitive and identify with issues.
“The thing is the care and compassion on the issues that affect the district.”
The last NAACP Legislative Report card showed only two Black Caucus members receiving Cs - Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Ford of Tennessee - while the other 41 got As and Bs, indicating that Black legislators are stronger advocates for Black constituents.
African-Americans’ inability to elect candidates of their choice it is often because of the lack of political self-interest and strategy, says Thomas N. Todd, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Operation PUSH.
“If we’re ever going to make electoral politics work for us, whomever is elected – whether it’s a Black person because we decide the Black person is the best candidate or a White person or Hispanic based on our basic needs – you need voter registration for the ability to vote, you need voter education which informs us how to vote our own best interest and we need voter participation,” says Todd.
“We don’t usually have those things. As a result of that, we don’t make informed electoral choices.”