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Blacks Looking to Represent White Districts Create Mixed Feelings
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 9/11/2006

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Having gained control over most predominantly Black political districts, an increasing number of African-Americans are campaigning to represent majority Whites districts.

While some view that trend as progress, others worry that the Black community may lose clout in the process.

“As districts begin to reflect a broader, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic orientation, the leadership, in order to get elected, begins to reflect both political realities. And there are consequences, “ says U. S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

“The consequences include less emphasis on programs that directly or proportionately affect African-Americans. We start talking about programs that affect all Americans. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad idea because it requires leadership to talk about issues that reflect all Americans. But Black folk have got some real needs out here that need to be addressed.”

Among those needs that need addressing: 58 percent of African-American children living in poverty, Black unemployment almost hovering around double digits and crime still dogging Black communities, all issues discussed during last week’s Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference.

“I do believe that when you’ve got African-Americans running, they bring a certain level of sensitivity, not only to African-American issues, but as a whole,” says Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

“When you look at the Congressional Black Caucus, when the Caucus has spoken out on C-SPAN, 95 percent of the people who call us are White. They weren’t Black people. The reason why I think that is because African-Americans basically tell it like it is, give the basics, think practical, act practical and speak practical. And because African-Americans have been through so much struggle in their lives, it gives them more or less a passport to help other people and I think that’s what happens. And I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Cummings credits U. S. Sen. Barack Obama, currently the only Black Senator and only one of five Blacks who have served in the Senate, for inspiring an increasing number of African-American Republicans and Democrats running statewide or in districts dominated by Whites. He credits Obama for people saying, “’If he can do it, I can do it.’”

Congressman Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) was among the first to congratulate Obama after he rendered his powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. It apparently rubbed off.

Ford, a self-proclaimed moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat, who earned a C on the last NAACP Legislative Report Card, has left his safe 9th House District previously held by his father to run for a Senate seat. In Massachusetts, Black Democrat Deval Patrick battled in a three-way neck-in-neck primary race for governor. Election results for Patrick was not in at NNPA deadline, but in recent polls, Ford, who won the Democratic Primary was only slightly trailing his Republican opponent Bob Corker by less than 5 percentage points.

In Ohio, Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell and in Pennsylvania, Republican Lynn Swann are running for governor in the general election Nov. 7.

Both are trying to duplicate the state-wide success of L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first and only elected African-American governor in 1989. Wilder won Virginia’s top spot with less than 2 percent of the vote. Virginia is 18 percent Black.

Many Black ministers and Black General Assembly members roundly criticized Wilder for his perceived insensitivity to such key issues as the death penalty.

Just like Whites, Black politicians are diverse in their thinking, says CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.).

“It will vary from candidate to candidate and from situation to situation. It is clear that representative government is about representing people. And the broader and more diverse the people are that you are seeking to represent, the more you have to cater to a different constituency. That’s what representative government is all about. We’ve had Black representatives that represented majority White constituencies for a long time. My congressional district, for example, is only 35-40 percent African-American.”

But a predominately White constituency should not absolve any politician from doing what is just, says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

“I don’t think that the fact that your constituency is diverse should limit you from pressing the issues that really should be corrected based upon America’s history,” says Lee, who represents the 40 percent Black, 35-40 percent Hispanic and approximately 20 percent White 18th District.

“What it really does say is that African-Americans are broad-based, they are multi-tasked and they can look at many issues. But, they are special because they bring to the table people that have never been brought to the table whether or not they represent a state or a small district.”

Some political observers don’t believe the Black community will automatically lose as a result of more Blacks seeking seats formerly held by Whites.

“We have a commonality of interest in many issues with people who are not African-Americans. And coalition politics is a very important part of our growth and transformation. Now, having said that, it’s very important that as people seek to move up and beyond, that we remember that our base of our support are always going to be on those places that have been overwhelmingly African-American,” says Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of predominately Black New Orleans.

“The essence of our growth in politics is that we transcend just being limited to the majority African-American districts…If we don’t go beyond just majority African-American, our political influence will never grow. And I think that our political transformation ought to be that we have African-Americans who can represent all people.”

And some have done just that.

“You’ve got to run as who you are,” says U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who represented overwhelmingly White districts in Virginia’s House and Senate.

“I don’t think that I compromised any of my principles based on who I was serving. You’ve got to run as who you are and say what you believe.” Besides, he says, “There are very few Black issues. There’s education, everybody’s for education. Crime prevention, everybody’s for crime prevention. Even civil rights, everybody can be for civil rights.''

Harvard law professor and civil rights and political activist Charles Ogletree predicts such campaigns will only increase.

“We are hoping that in the 21st Century, we are going to have a significant number of African-Americans; not one or two – that will be elected when the people who voted for them were majority-minority,” he says.

“We see that with Barack Obama. We hope to see it with Harold Ford. We’ve seen it with Barbara Lee. It is a rarity. But if we’re ever going to have a real democracy, people have to be elected based on their talents and merits and race should not be a prohibitive factor.”

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