THE STATE OF BLACK AMERICAN POLITICS

Dr. Martin Kilson's report to the National Urban League

 

 

 

Dr. Martin Kilson's grand overview of the course of Black American electoral politics during the past three decades is required reading for all persons concerned with U.S. history and politics. Kilson's exposition and interpretation of the "core agenda" that has mobilized African American activists, politicians and voters, from passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through to what Dr. Kilson calls the current "maturation phase" of electoral activity, will certainly be referenced by scholars and journalists in the decades to come.

Kilson, who enjoys a special place among Black America's pre-eminent political scientists, skillfully interprets data compiled by the Joint Center for Political Studies to trace the remarkable commonality of mainstream civil rights organizations' political positions and those championed by African American officeholders. This struggle around "core issues" - defined by Kilson as "housing, jobs, education, criminal justice, and an overall pro-active federal role in ending racism's impact in these areas" - has served as the practical and authentic nexus of the political conversation between African Americans and those who speak on their behalf.

It is the Republican Party's failure to address the core Black agenda that has led to the GOP's "abysmal" electoral record among African Americans, says Kilson. He notes, however, that "signs of attitudinal fissures" have arisen along generational lines regarding the idea of school vouchers, both among Black officeholders and within the African American electorate.

Kilson points out that "the 'generational-conflict' notion is only applied to black politics" - never to Latinos and whites. He sounds a "wake-up call to Black America's national civil rights leadership," to be vigilant in the face of emerging "stealth candidacies" of Black nominal Democrats backed by rightwing money. First-term Newark city councilman Cory Booker's 2002 effort to oust four-term incumbent Sharpe James was a major manifestation of this threat, says Kilson. He warns of more such "stealth candidacies" to come, "fueled by conservative funding sources linked to the Republican Party."

- The Publishers, The Black Commentator

The entire State of Black America 2002 report in a bound paperback book may be purchased directly from the National Urban League. It features Martin Kilson's report and seven other essays. The price is $24.95 plus shipping and handling. You may e-Mail to Lee Daniels, Director of Publications at ldaniels@nul.org or telephone 212.558.5345. None of the proceeds of sales of the book go to The Black Commentator, but please mention us if you order. Thank you.

State of Black America 2002
American Politics 2002: Maturation Phase

by Martin Kilson

There is no better point of departure for portraying the maturation phase of the political status of African-Americans in the overall American political process than examining this year's 30th Annual Report on Black Elected Officials by the Washington-based think tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and written by its senior political analyst, Dr. David Bositis. Under the deft leadership of Eddie Williams, the Joint Center has provided the indispensable service of tracking both the growth and overall comparative systemic attributes of African-Americans holding the several kinds of political office in the United States since 1970. All Americans genuinely interested in the growth of equality and diversity in political officeholding in our American democracy are greatly in its debt for having skillfully performed this function for a generation and a half.

An Overview of Black Elected Officials

As the militant phase of the Civil Rights Movement began to gain a favorable public policy and legislative response from the United States federal government by, say, 1964, there were around 350 Black elected officials. When those halcyon days ended and the Joint Center conducted its first census of Black Elected Officials (BEOs) in 1970, that number had reached 1,469. The steady shift in the politics of African-American life between 1970 and today - from full-fledged civil rights activism to a mixed-politics of both civil rights activism and sophisticated Black electoral mobilization - has produced the unprecedented number of 9,040 BEOs the Joint Center found for the year 2000. This figure amounts to between two percent and three percent of all United States elected officials.

Viewed in regional terms, some 869 BEOs, or 9.7 percent of the total represent Northeast states; 1,636, or 18.2 percent, represent Midwest states; and 326, or 3.6 percent represent Western states. Not surprisingly, the South recorded the largest 30-year growth in BEOs, with 6,170, or 68.5 percent of the total. The reasons for this are plain enough. First, about 55 percent of all African Americans live in the South. Secondly, local, state, city, and federal officeholding jurisdictions include large concentrations of African Americans. And thirdly, the necessity of ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization is still a reality of African-American life today - just as Irish-American, Jewish-American, Polish-American, Italian-American, Latino-American, Chinese-American, WASP-American, etc. ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization are still realities in overall American life.

Keep in mind that ever since the rise of an ethnically pluralistic American political culture in the post-Civil War era, when Irish-Catholic Americans became a major force in the urban industrial working class - and were joined from the 1890s onward by Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, etc. - the American political culture has allowed democratic space for ethnic-bloc political and electoral mobilization. The WASP host cultural group in our American democracy first designed and utilized electoral methods based on ethnic patterns. WASPS did this initially in the pre-Civil War era with political exclusion purposes in mind; they manipulated voting boundaries or districts to keep down the votes of competing religious groups among the WASP sector. Then, from the post-Civil War era onward, competing WASP politicians also manipulated electoral districts for political inclusion purposes, recruiting Irish Catholic voters who might favor Republican Party candidates in industrial cities or states over Democratic Party candidates. This WASP-initiated manipulation of electoral mobilization through the design and re-design of voting districts became known as "gerrymandering," after Elbridge Gerry, the 18th-century WASP highborn Massachusetts merchant who had an extraordinary but deeply checkered career in the political life of the young nation. As governor of Massachusetts in 1811 (Gerry would become James Madison's vice president in 1813, before dying in 1814), it was his party's redrawing of voting districts - one of which had the shape of a salamander - to ensure their continued power that his opponents seized upon to produce the eternal pun...

From the 1890s on, as Irish-Americans learned to employ ethnic-bloc activism in the electoral process, such ethnic-bloc patterns became a key element in expanding the political incorporation of weak and marginal white groups. It was through such democratic ethnic-bloc electoral space that the first Irish-American city councilmen, mayors, state assemblymen, congressmen, and governors gained office in great states and cities like New York and New York City, Illinois and Chicago, etc. The names of James Michael Curley (an early Irish Mayor in Boston and also Governor in Massachusetts), Timothy Sullivan (an early Irish Mayor in New York City), Alfred Smith (first Irish governor of New York and in 1928 the first Irish candidate for president of the United States), and even John Fitzgerald Kennedy (in 1960 the first victorious Irish candidate for president) reflect the long-standing pragmatic weaving of ethnic-bloc modalities into the electoral fabric of American political culture.

Thus, in our contemporary American society this ethnic-bloc pattern of electoral mobilization is legitimately applicable to African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, etc.

Curiously enough, however, beginning in the conservative Reagan and Bush Republican Administrations in the 1980s onward, conservative analysts and pundits have pejoratively labeled this very American mode of political organizing as "identity politics" and declared that it violates the very traditions of American social and political conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. The historical record on the role of ethnic-bloc modalities among WASPS and white ethnic groups alike makes it unmistakably clear that their use has qualitatively advanced the nature of democratic space in American political culture. So, too, now for African-Americans: their use of ethnic-bloc patterns since the late 1960s has made possible a steady-state growth of BEOs to the 9,000-officeholder level and beyond. I have no doubt that the invention of the "identity politics" rhetorical maneuver among conservative analysts and pundits - put forth often in such organs as The New Republic, The National Review, Commentary, and so on, and by such conservative black analysts as Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, K.A. Appiah, Randall Kennedy, and John McWhorter - emerged as a racist response to this hard-wrought African-American political achievement.

Of course, even as black voters have voted heavily for BEOs, they have also voted for white candidates who have supported blacks' civil rights agenda. Recently, black voters have elected two white mayors in two large black-majority cities - Gary and Baltimore. In a similar vein among whites, the past decade has seen a growth of electoral liberalism among white Americans in regard to their voting for African-American candidates. As I will discuss below, this has been the case especially for BEOs representing statewide offices, and even some county and city offices. On the other hand, since the 1960s, only a few African-American congressional officeholders have gained office through majority support from white voters - namely, Senator Edward Brooke (Republican, 1967-1979) in Massachusetts, Senator Carol Moseley-Braun (Democrat, 1993-1996) in Illinois, and Congressman J.C. Watts (Republican, first elected in 1994) in Oklahoma. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that a growing number of African-American candidates will contest statewide and House of Representatives offices in white-majority districts. Indeed, it seems clear now that even the White House is within reach of a uniquely appealing African-American political personality, such as General Colin Powell, America's first African-American Secretary of State.

Looking at it in broad strokes, then, since 1970 the African-American political class has acquired and put to use some important new political status attributes that have led to a distinctive maturation of its position at city, state and federal levels. Because I will end this essay on municipal politics, I'll begin this part of the discussion considering black political advancement at the state level.

Attributes of Black State Officials

In the early 1960s, there were no more than 40 Black State Officials (BSOs) across the country. Now, this category of African-American political officeholders totals 606 and includes 571 state legislators and 35 statewide administrators. Further, it should be noted that nearly a third of the 35 statewide administrator posts held by African-Americans are major decision-making offices. They are: Colorado:Lieutenant Governor (Joe Rogers); Connecticut: State Treasurer (Denise L. Nappier); Georgia: Attorney General (Thurber E. Baker); Georgia: Public Service Commissioner (David L. Burgess); Georgia: Chief Justice-State Supreme Court (Robert Benham); New York: State Comptroller (H. Carl McCall): North Carolina: State Auditor (Ralph Campbell); Oregon: State Treasurer (Jim Hill); Tennessee: Chief Justice-State Supreme Court (Adolpho A. Birch); and Texas: Chair-State Railroad Commission (Michael L. Williams).

Again, the African-American electorate in the South has generated the largest number of black state legislators. Mississippi has 45; Georgia, 43; Alabama, 35; South Carolina, 33; Louisiana, 31; North Carolina, 24; Florida, 20; Tennessee and Texas, 16 each; Arkansas and Virginia, 15 each; and Kentucky and West Virginia, 4 each. The rising status of African-American women in black leadership councils is seen in the fact that the percentage of black women state legislators now stands at 31.7 percent of black state representatives and 33.8 percent of black state senators. Moreover, as Bositis observes in the document, "Of the states with a significant number of black state lawmakers, black women constitute the largest proportions of state representatives in Tennessee (53.8 percent), Illinois (46.7 percent), Georgia (40.6 percent), and Florida (40 percent). Georgia (54.5 percent), Ohio (50% percent), and Virginia (50 percent) have the largest proportions of black women among state senators.

Finally, it's important to take note of the expanding appetite among the African-American political class for contesting top decision-making statewide offices, and especially the pinnacle state office of governor. Currently, six African-American politicians, all Democrats, have come forth as serious gubernatorial candidates: Roland Burris, in Illinois; Gary George, in Wisconsin; Jim Hill, in Oregon; Daryl Jones, in Florida; H. Carl McCall, in New York; and Alma Wheeler Smith, in Michigan.

Changing Attributes of Black Mayoralties

The black political class' qualitative advances in municipal politics have paralleled their advances at the state level. When the Joint Center launched its annual census in 1970, there were barely a dozen black mayors holding office in cities whose population was 100,000 or more. The most important of these cities then were Cleveland (Mayor Carl Stokes), Gary (Mayor Richard Hatcher), Newark, N.J. (Mayor Kenneth Gibson), and New Orleans (Mayor Ernest Morial). More than with the election of blacks to state offices or to the U.S. Congress, the election of the first cadre of black mayors in the late 1960s and early 1970s epitomized the post-Civil Rights Movement electoral ethnic-bloc mobilization of black Americans. The election of black mayors among the early cadre from 1967 through the 1970s - which later included such mayors as Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in Atlanta, Coleman Young in Detroit, Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, and Marion Barry in Washington, D.C. - produced political leaders who became household names among millions of African-Americans in a way statewide officials among the African-American political class never have.

This was so mainly because the smashing of white racist barriers to viable black electoral participation and governance parity in American society required fashioning at the level of urban politics a special activist chemistry that was publicly "pro-black," on the one hand, and sharply anti-white-supremacist, on the other. After all, it was in American cities where a fierce alliance of several entrenched negative forces of American political culture dominated the urban civil life from the mid-19th century well into the mid-1960s. That fierce and roguish political alliance involved a culture of governmental corruption, electoral chicanery, and the Northern urban variant of the overall American white-supremacist patterns of behavior: It fomented, among other things, massive and violent job discrimination, massive and violent housing market discrimination, massive discrimination in access by blacks to public education resources, racist criminal justice practices, and an all but official tolerance of some significant level of anti-black (and Latino) police brutality. Keep in mind especially that as the weak and poor white-ethnic working classes mounted their own electoral mobilization challenge of the WASP power class' hold over American politics in general, they started that process in the cities and with the structures of municipal government.

From these structures, the white-ethnic working classes and their middle-class politicians forged a sharply politicized access to county offices, state legislatures, governors' offices, state bureaucracies, federal offices in Congress and the powerful federal bureaucracies, and the presidency itself. In a very real sense, then, city-level structures are the foundation of the American political system.And just as white-ethnic groups learned this and conquered city-level structures from the post-Civil War era through the first half of the 20th century, so, too, the African-American working class and its middle-class leadership had to learn this.

Thus, in the past 30-odd years African-Americans have fashioned - against the grain of the white majority's anti-black bigotry - their own special use of democratic space to achieve governance parity in running city-level structures. Although this aspect of black Americans' struggle for equality is still in progress, the quantitative and qualitative status of black mayoralties today represents a veritable sea-change from the late 1960s. For example, there are today some forty-seven black mayors in cities of 50,000 and above. These cities range from the large ones - Houston (1,953,631), Philadelphia (1,517,550), Dallas (1,188,580), Detroit (951,270), San Francisco (776,733) Columbus, Ohio (711,470), Denver (554,636), Cleveland (478,403), Minneapolis (382,618), and Arlington, Texas (332,969); to medium- and near-medium-sized cities - Newark (273,545), Birmingham (242,820), Rochester (219,773), Richmond (197,790), Paterson, N.J. (149,222), Savannah (131,510), Flint, Michigan (124,943), Portsmouth, Virginia (100,565), Trenton, N.J. (85,403), Wilmington, Delaware (72,664), Mt. Vernon, N.Y. (68,381), Saginaw, Michigan (61,799), and Monroe, Louisiana (53,107).

Perhaps the most interesting new development on this front has been the growth of Black mayors in white-voter majority cities.... These white-voter majority black mayoralties also range across the population spectrum of cities - from large ones: Houston (24.3 percent black), Dallas (25.9 percent black), San Francisco (7.8 percent black), Denver (11.1 percent black), and Minneapolis, and Minneapolis (18 percent black); to those of medium size: Jersey City (28.3 percent black), Chesapeake, Virginia (28.5 percent black), Des Moines (8.1 percent black), and Oceanside, California (6.3 percent black); to smaller municipalities: Carson, California (25.4 percent black), Kalamazoo, Michigan (20.6 percent black), Evanston, Illinois (22.5 percent black), Hempstead Village, New York (25.7 percent black), and Sarasota, Florida (16 percent black).

Changing Attitudes Among Second Generation BEOs

Because their electoral success was a product of the successes and lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1960s "generation" of Black Elected Officials held and acted on broadly uniform attitudes regarding the main public-policy issues of primary concern to African-Americans. Between the middle 1960s and the middle 1980s, there was a broad consensus among BEOs on issues relating to school desegregation, criminal justice practices and police practices, abortion, affirmative action, etc. (The same high level of consensus on key issues existed between black elected officials and the black electorate.) During the 1990s and the first two years of the 21st century, however, some measure of conflict has surfaced between the 1960s generation of the black political class and second-generation cohort of post-Civil Rights era BEOs. A 1999 poll conducted by the Joint Center was the first to uncover the signs of attitudinal fissures along generational lines within the African-American cadre of black elected officeholders; and this poll also discovered competing perceptions about public schools' performance between the officials and average African-American voters.

The findings revealed that the black general public is more inclined to rank public schools as "fair" and "poor" than are black elected officials. Sixty-five percent of those in the 18 to 25 age group ranked public schools as "fair" and "poor" (33 percent rated them fair; 32 percent, poor), compared to 51 percent of the 18 to 40 age group of elected officials (31 percent rated the schools as fair; 20 percent, poor). The elected officials were much stronger in ranking public schools "excellent" and "good" in all age categories - 50 percent in the 18 to 40 age group, 61 percent in the 41 to 49 age group. But, among the black general public, only a plurality rate the public schools as "excellent" and "good" - 35 percent of the 18 to 25 age cohort viewed them that way, while 44 percent and 41 percent among the 26 to 35 age group and the 36-50 age group, respectively, did so. Perusing this data, the Joint Center's David Bositis observed that a "significant part of this difference is attributable to school board members, who seem to hold unusually high opinions of their local public schools, with 71 percent rating them as excellent or good and only 6 percent rating them as poor.

In other words, to put it in the most charitable terms, many black school board members around the country lack an evaluative understanding of their own policy roles. Perhaps local chapters of the NAACP and the National Urban League can help these myopic and ideologically self-serving black school board members and other black educational personnel become more aware of the terrible record of performance, generally speaking, of public schools - which 95 percent of African-American children attend. The issue of school vouchers highlights a particularly sharp rift in perceptions as between younger and older generation black officeholders. In the Joint Center's 1999 poll, the attitude of older-generation BEOs toward school vouchers contrasted sharply with that of the black general public. Some 60 percent of the latter favor school vouchers while, according to Bositis, "opposition to school vouchers averages more than 70 percent" among BEOs in the middle and older age groups, which constitute the vast majority of the nation's black officeholders. Thus, only 27 percent of BEOs in the 41 to 49 age group favor school vouchers and only 23 percent in the 50-64 age group favor school vouchers. Only in the minority sector of BEOs - in the 18 to 40 age group - can a 49-percent plurality of support for school vouchers be found. This situation contrasts sharply with the attitude toward school vouchers among the black general public. Some 71 percent of its 18 to 25 age group, 76 percent in the 26 to 35 age group, 67 percent in the 36 to 50 age group, and a plurality of 49 percent in the 51 to 64 age group support school vouchers.

Reflections on Newark's 2002 Mayoral Campaign

As African-Americans enter the second year of the 21st century, there has so far been little serious indication of changes in black electoral behavior stemming from the small shifts in political attitudes among generationally-defined sectors of black officeholders, or between BEOs and the black general public. For example, black Republican Party candidates - and conservative candidates, black or white, in general - have not demonstrated any significant capacity to advance electorally among African-American voters by exploiting the evolving attitude differences among BEOs or between BEOs and the black general public. According to the Joint Center's 2000 data, only seven black Republicans hold office in black-majority districts nationally - a record which, it must be said, indicates a stunning lack of interest by both the white and the black politicos of the GOP in sincerely pressing their case with black voters. Despite more than two decades of rhetoric that Republican conservatism offers African Americans a viable avenue for inclusion, the GOP has yet to mount a substantive real-life effort to address what poll after poll shows African-Americans consider major core issues - such as racist practices in housing, job markets, income/wealth patterns, educational opportunities, health patterns, and the criminal justice system. Instead, the Republicans have seemed content to play appointive politics with the black electorate. The 2000 presidential campaign and its aftermath saw the Bush Administration and its allies in the mainstream media temporarily shelve two decades' worth of a hard-line rhetorical advocacy of "color-blindness" in order to vigorously trumpet its high-profile black appointments

Make no mistake: this development is progress of some significance, and not only in comparative terms with the paucity of black appointments in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. In fact, these black appointments were an historic acknowledgement from the conservative political establishment that its heretofore sacred whites-only at the top rule is an unacceptable way to conduct politics now even to those it considers its core constituency. In short, the conservatives have been forced by the power of African-American political activity since the 1960s, the emergence of Asian-Americans and Latino-Americans as political forces in their own right, and by white Americans' move toward greater tolerance to realize that to be considered modern and legitimate in American politics now, one has to have - to use that once- verboten word - diversity at the top of the administrative structure.

Nonetheless, the high-level appointments cannot obscure the GOP's abysmal black-related electoral record. In the 2000 election campaign, there were 24 blacks running for Congress on the GOP ticket - incumbent J.C. Watts, of Oklahoma, and 23 first-time candidates. Of the 24, only Watts won: all the 23 others lost. As Lee A Daniels put it in the February 2001 issue of Opportunity Journal, "What does it say about the Grand Old Party that it could capture the White House, but not get a single new black Republican elected to Congress.... Imagine the impact if 20 of those 23 black candidates had won office. Or if 15 had. Or 10, or even 5. We'd have been bombarded with declarations that the GOP was "now making serious inroads into the Democratic stranglehold on the black vote...."

Daniels' particular point was that, the individual strengths or weaknesses of the black GOP candidates aside, the fact that all 23 lost bespoke a lack of commitment from the national party itself. And that lack of commitment to include blacks among its ranks of elected officeholders continues.

Note, first, that the Republicans are assiduously courting Latino voters, trying to cut into the 69-percent support the Democrats garnered in 2000. A June 3, 2002 article in the New York Times ("Bilingual, So to Speak, but Halting") underscored this point when it recalled that the President last year made the first-ever radio address in Spanish by a U.S. President. "He doesn't try very hard to get the pronunciation the way native speakers speak," the Times quote Otto Santa Ana, a Chicano studies professor at the University of California as saying. "But Latinos were very encouraged by him. Here is the president of the United States speaking Spanish, however haltingly. He's simply legitimizing what is so obvious to us that people cheer him. And they cheer him because he's acknowledging them as Americans." The article declared that Bush will make significant use of his Spanish-speaking skills in 2004, when Latinos are likely to be as much as 10 percent of the electorate, up from their present 7 percent in 2000. "So by necessity," said Matthew Dowd, one of the President's pollsters, "Republicans have to win a larger share of them. Speaking Spanish can only help with Latinos who as a group are inclined to vote Democratic."

No such obvious ethnically-targeted effort is being mounted to enlarge the GOP's small slice of the black electorate, however. Recall that all six of the African-Americans who've mounted serious challenges for their states' gubernatorial chairs this year are Democratic. In other words, when it comes to electoral politics, the Grand Old Party, America's mainstream conservative party, is still the same old party - it considers black voters invisible men and women.

However, one important exception to the absence of a substantive conservative attempt to corral black votes has now occurred in Newark, New Jersey, during the bid this past spring by the incumbent four-term mayor, Sharpe James, for a final term in office. James was challenged not by an openly conservative black Republican candidate, but rather by what might be called "a covert black Republican candidate" - a conservative Black Democratic Newark city councilman, Cory Booker. Booker, 33, had stellar "public" credentials: he was young, good looking, highly articulate and charismatic, with degrees from Stanford, Yale Law School, and Oxford University via a Rhodes Scholarship. He mounted a major challenge to the 66-year-old James, who during his 16 years in office had transformed the majority black voter base in Newark (whose population is 53 percent black and 30 percent Latino) into a major New Jersey statewide swing vote, as was demonstrated in the Democratic electoral victories in 2000 of U.S. Senator Jon Corzine and in 2001, of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey.

What sparked the ostensibly surprising capacity of Booker, a one-term city councilman, to mount a major challenge to a longstanding incumbent was, first, Booker's skill at appealing to a segment of black voters disenchanted over what they view as the poor performance record of Newark's public schools. Booker took up the advocacy of school vouchers as his policy response to the school-performance issue.

There's no question that, although there's nothing genuinely "liberal-reform" about school vouchers, the idea, as the Joint Center's data has shown, has great appeal to many working-class black voters who've become disenchanted with the general (and specific) poor performance of public schools. Furthermore, during the Newark campaign Booker was adept at fashioning a liberal-reform appeal to both black and white middle-class voters (whites comprise some 15 percent of Newark's population). He lambasted the longstanding role of patronage in Newark politics and the perks available to patronage appointees in order to paint James as the "Old Guard Black Leadership" and himself, by contrast, as leading a "New Guard Black Leadership." This seemingly liberal-reform appeal caught many Newark voters' imaginations, and, as the election approached, polls showed James leading by only 4 to 6 percentage points - which meant that the contest was, statistically speaking, virtually dead even.

The Newark race generated an enormous amount of coverage from the national mainstream media - and the quality of that coverage, both in the news stories and the opinion columns raised profound questions. James, who once simultaneously held a state senate seat along with the mayoralty, is widely acknowledged, as Kean University political science professor Merle Treusch told the New York Times, as "probably the most powerful African-American political figure in the history of New Jersey." Yet, with few exceptions, the mainstream media devoted little space, if any, to the significance of that achievement, or to presenting any but the most superficial accounts of Newark's struggles over the past three decades. Instead, the coverage was so one-sided in Booker's favor as to be nothing short of astonishing. There's no doubt that Booker's candidacy was buoyed by vigorous - one might say, swooning - endorsements from conservative, centrist and liberal columnists in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, and the Newark Star-Ledger, among other media outlets and publications; and ultimately by editorial endorsements from the Star-Ledger and the New York Times.

Booker was also endorsed by a host of national luminaries, including former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, and scholar-activist Cornel West; many of them contributed to the nearly $3-million war chest he raised for the campaign - a figure substantially larger than what James raised.

But the endorsements and the outsized war chest weren't enough on election day, May 14th, to counter James' support by the state's entire Democratic political establishment, from McGreevey to the entire Newark city council (excepting Booker, of course) and the Mayor's superb voter-mobilization skills. James won with 53 percent of the vote, to Booker's 47 percent. Despite Booker's claim that James did not represent the city's black masses, James won all of the city's black-majority voting districts, including the one Booker represents, while Booker won the Latino-majority and white-majority districts.

James had said before the election that this would be his last term in office. Booker declared after the final results were in that he fully intended to run for the top post the next time around.

As I said, the Newark contest was important in several respects - but its greatest importance is revealed by the coverage it drew. Indeed, the quality of that coverage, especially the opinion columns, provides a very big clue that, despite the liberal-reform aura projected onto Booker's campaign, what-voters-saw-is-not-necessarily-what-they-would-have-gotten from a Cory Booker mayoralty. In fact, my view is that Booker, while nominally a Democratic councilman, is substantively "a covert conservative Republican candidate." Why do I say this?

First, the initial public evidence of Booker's conservative leanings was revealed by the ultra-conservative columnist, George F. Will, in his March 17, 2002, weekly syndicated column, when Booker had already made clear his plans to challenge James. Will wrote that "Booker's plans for Newark's renaissance are drawn from thinkers at... the Manhattan Institute think tank, and from the experience of others such as Stephen Goldsmith, former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, a pioneer of privatization [of public institutions] and faith-based delivery of some government services...." Will's reference to Booker's connection to the Manhattan Institute was particularly telling. After all, it is at the Manhattan Institute where longstanding conservative opponents of the mainline black leadership's civil rights agenda - in regard to housing, jobs, education, criminal justice, and an overall pro-active federal role in ending racism's impact in these areas through affirmative action and related policies - hang their hats, or have significant links. That list includes such white conservatives as Abigail Thernstrom, William Bennett, Nathan Glazer - and such black ones as Shelby Steele, Alan Keyes, and John McWhorter.

Will's column also revealed another dimension of the de facto conservative operational dimension of Booker's mayoral candidacy: Namely, that it was a stealth affair in regard to its campaign funding. For, although nominally a Democrat, Booker's funding came mainly fromconservative Republican sources - whom Will euphemistically described as "reform-minded supporters [of Booker]". Will noted that by March 2000 Booker had "raised $1.5 million through reform-minded supporters in New York financial circles." This May, as the election drew near, the one-term councilman was reported to have raised a total of $2.8 million for his campaign, exceeding the $2.3 million raised by James - a four-term incumbent! Whence Councilman Booker's resources?

That important question was skillfully plumbed by The Black Commentator, an online political journal co-published by Glen Ford, of nearby Jersey City, New Jersey, and Peter Gamble, of Philadelphia. The April 5, 2002 BlackCommentator.com article traced the strong ties between Booker and, via conservative black Republicans, such Republican-linked rightwing foundations as the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Foundation. At the center of the relationship stood the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), which declares vouchers as the answer to lack of quality education available to many black children in public schools. Established in the late 1990s by Dr. Howard Fuller, a conservative black school superintendent, in Milwaukee, BAEO organized its own activist mechanism and fashioned ties with such conservative white organizations as the Free Congress Foundation. These latter groups were heavily supported by the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other deeply conservative foundations. In turn, as The Black Commentator found, "BAEO has received $1.7 million from [the] Bradley [Foundation] since June of 2001... [and the] Walton Foundation came up with $900,000 in seed money."

Thus, as Black Commentator declares, the BAEO has no "life independent of Bradley [Foundation] and... the Walton Foundation.... In a December 2001 report, the liberal People for the American Way asked rhetorically whether the BAEO was a 'Community Voice or Captive of the Right?' Transparency in Media, which keeps track of rightwing foundations, describes the BAEO as 'a project' of the Bradley Foundation." The Black Commentator concludes "that Cory Booker's [Newark mayoral campaign] organization is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bradley and Walton [foundations]."

Considering the publication's research and Ford's insight in the broader context of American politics and African-American politics, the findings offer the first systematic description of an emergent conservative and Republican Party strategy of using black conservative activists in "stealth" fashion to corral the votes of a segment of the African-American electorate. The Black Commentator's words are worth citing in full:

It is the BAEO [on whose board Cory Booker sits] and its patrons that have propelled a one-term [Newark] councilman into places of honor at the tables of the rightwing rich. The Free Congress Foundation proclaimed Booker among the nation's top four "New Black Leaders," along with J.C. Watts, the Republican congressman from Oklahoma; Deborah Walden-Ford, a professional Right operative who also sits on the BAEO board; and Star Parker, a former welfare mother turned ultra-conservative speaking circuit maven. The Free Congress Foundation gets a fat check every year from Bradley - $425,000 in 2002. Parker sits on the board of Black America's Political Action Committee (BAMPAC), the political toy of... Alan Keyes, 1996 GOP presidential candidate and MSNBC talk-show host. White Republicans get most of BAMPAC's campaign contributions, but Cory Booker certainly qualifies for access to some of Keyes' more than $2 million treasury. Last year, Booker won the first BAMPAC Leader of Tomorrow Award, bestowed on those "under 40 who promote the BAMPAC mission and are seen as rising stars on the political landscape." Another BAMPAC board member, Phyllis Meyers Berry, is president of the Center for New Black Leadership, created... with $215,000 from the Olin, Scaife and VCJ Foundations - and Bradley.... Booker's stock soared in the circles of selfish wealth.

The Manhattan Institute... recipient of $250,000 in Bradley money in 2000, invited Booker to one of its power lunches [seminars], where [in an address] he effortlessly dropped Right-speak code words.

This constellation of conservative forces that constituted the soul of Councilman Cory Booker's mayoral campaign in Newark is just the opposite - ideologically and politically - of the genuine liberal wing of the Republican Party, the one that produced such national black figures as Arthur Fletcher, an important Labor Department official in the Nixon Administration, and William T. Coleman, the former longstanding chair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who was Secretary of Transportation in the Ford Administration; and which in the administration of New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean two decades ago fostered the careers at the cabinet level of such black Republicans as Leonard Coleman, who later became National Urban League Board Member and President of the National Baseball League.

Conclusion: Lessons of the Booker Campaign

The campaign of Cory Booker for the mayor's chair in Newark thus illustrates one new facet of what I call the maturation phase of African-American politics. Namely, that the national Republican Party - at its pinnacle through a deeply conservative but politically savvy Republican White House under President George W. Bush - is seeking to penetrate the fissures in political attitudes and policy issues that, understandably, have now emerged among the expanded segments of Black America. So, it should be, in contemporary parlance, a wake-up call to Black America's national civil rights leadership in the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a variety of national professional associations among African-Americans, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and related organizations of BEOs. They must sharpen their political antenna for the long-haul task of detecting the next round of what I call "Black Stealth Candidacies" for mayoral, congressional, state legislator, and other offices around the country - that is, black candidacies packaged ostensibly along Black liberal-reform views, but which belie their true funding sources and ideological objectives. Ostensibly black-run conservative machinery (the BAEO, the BAMPAC, and the Center for New Black Leadership) fueled by conservative funding sources linked to the Republican Party - are now equipped to initiate more of these "black stealth candidacies" - and they surely will.

One ingredient black progressive forces will find useful in dealing with this latest effort to block black political progress is to remember one of the attributes that contributed mightily to black political development in the century just ended: an understanding of how to transfer leadership from one generation to the next.

One notion continually trumpeted by the pro-Booker columnists and the pro-Booker news stories was that the Newark campaign represented a "generational conflict" between the "old" (and, by implication, no longer viable) civil rights-oriented and progressive leadership out of which James emerged, and the "new" African-American, under-35 cohort. However, this isn't the first time the generation-conflict gambit has been substituted for honest analysis of black political behavior. It was trotted out in the 1980s, too, when the Reagan Administration was trying to declare black progressive politics dead by fiat. Then, the media also anointed a small group of black conservative ideologues, such as Shelby Steele, and young black wannabes as the "new generation" of leaders of Black America. While Steele and several of his fellow ideologues are now ensconced in conservative think tanks or academia, the political wannabes quickly faded from sight. A second revealing fact about the "generational-conflict" notion is that it is only applied to black politics - not to the powerful currents re-shaping the political activity of Latino and Asian Americans, and never, of course, to the dynamics of political activity among white Americans.

In fact, the notions put forward in this fashion are hostile as well as politically tendentious interpretations of the generational factor - not conflict - in African-American politics, not liberal and black-friendly interpretations. They are motivated by a desire to divide and conquer.

In fact, the maturation phase of African-American politics has shown how skillfully the first-generation cohort of black elected politicians have transferred leadership to a second-generation cohort, on the one hand, and on the other hand sustained solid commitment among the second-generation cohort to the core policy features of the longstanding African-American leadership's civil rights agenda. This occurred, for instance, as Carl Stokes and Louis Stokes transferred black mayoral leadership to Michael White in Cleveland; as Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young transferred black mayoral leadership to Dennis Archer in Detroit; and similarly in New Orleans, Birmingham, Richmond, Philadelphia, etc.

It is the continuing responsibility of the older generation of black civil leaders and politicians - now exemplified by a primary task of Mayor Sharpe James - to transmit their leadership skills to a succeeding, younger generation cohort who exhibit genuine commitment to the mainline African-American leadership's civil rights agenda.

That agenda is represented not only by the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Congressional Black Caucus, but also by the sundry African-American professional associations, trade unions, and voluntary organizations.

We need look no further than the black electorate of Newark to see the importance of that task. For when it became clear in the 2002 Newark mayoral campaign that the genuine African-American civil rights agenda was not the political agenda of Cory Booker's candidacy, the vast majority of Newark's African-American voters voted accordingly.

****

Martin Kilson has taught at Harvard University since 1962 and is now Frank G. Thomson Research Professor. He recently finished a two-volume work, The Making of Black Intellectuals: Studies on the African-American Intelligentsia (forthcoming).

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Issue Number 9
August 8, 2002

 

 

 

 

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Other commentaries in this issue:

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator


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