A New Glass Ceiling? Why African-American Politicians Face an Uphill Battle for Senate Seats and Governorships
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JB: Pretty much anyone who wants to run for office has to first prove they can raise huge sums of money. Elections in the United States are so candidate-centered. Parties are not usually sending a ton of money to candidates. So it’s key that if you want to run and you intend on challenging an incumbent that you need to be able to raise for a Senate seat millions of dollars and for a House seat hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Political scientists say that politicians first fund-raise from their friends and neighbors. It’s interesting that of the handful of successful, statewide African American politicians, Barack Obama is one of them, represented mixed districts that were a little more affluent and thus they had the opportunity to make connections with and develop networks of powerful fundraisers.
JH: And this overwhelming majority of black members of Congress represent districts in southern states. And it seems to me that race is still a big part of this picture. When you move from your district, which may very well be a majority African-American district, to a statewide race you’re now facing a southern electorate. Tell me about the experience that Harvey Gantt had. He was looking like he was going to be a real up-and-comer, right?
JB: Right. In Harvey Gantt’s case he actually came very close to winning. Given that this was North Carolina in the early '90s, where a moderate or liberal Democrat actually had a very hard time winning. He was running against an incumbent. A 5-point spread at that time was actually very, very narrow.
His problem, as I describe in the piece, was that he had gotten past a lot of the hurdles that make it difficult for black House members or black mayors to run statewide. But he was cut off at the knees by prejudice, by racism. His opponent Jesse Helms ran a very infamous ad, the “Hands” ad, in which the narration was something to the effect of, “You needed that job, but they gave it to a minority,” thus tying Gantt to affirmative action and programs that were perceived to take rightful benefits and rightful jobs from white Americans.
I think that those things are surmountable, but they require a large amount of backing from the party, they require an electorate that is a little more mixed than North Carolina’s was in the early '90s. You can get past the prejudice. It’s just a matter of getting to the point where you actually have an opportunity to.
JH: So it’s another layer of obstacles to overcome. And lest people think that this is a thing of that past, that race happened in 1990, but you also talk about Harold Ford and the “Call Me” ad. What was that?
JB: That ad was not as explicit as the “Hands” ad; the “Hands” ad to me is still remarkable for just how blatantly racist it was. The “Call Me” ad for Harold Ford was simply talking about how Harold Ford, who was single at the time, had gone to the Playboy mansion for a party. In the final scene of the ad is a young white woman saying, “Call me, Harold,” in a very flirtatious voice.
This seems innocuous, but given that Harold Ford was running in Tennessee, given that Harold Ford is an African American, and given that he comes from a dynasty of African-American lawmakers, there are very clear racial implications to the ad. It ran in the fall and it’s not necessarily responsible for sealing Ford’s defeat, but making it very difficult for him to make up the 3-point deficit he had throughout the race.