As the country has moved forward, these new black politicians can no longer pin their hopes on civil rights, faith or just being African American. To broaden their appeal to an increasingly diverse America, they must run campaigns based on stability, hard work and trust.
It can be a tricky balancing act. How did African American politics get to this point? And how do black candidates create an image that not only appeals to African Americans, but to all Americans? These questions are being pondered by more people, with a wider range of perspectives, in more positions of power than ever before.
“There’s a generational transformation going on,” said American University professor Leonard Steinhorn, who is also a former speechwriter and campaign staffer on Capitol Hill. “Previous generations were people who were from the civil rights movement, people who were involved in securing freedoms who got involved in politics. You’re seeing less of that these days. What you’re seeing is the mainstreaming, in effect, of the black candidate.”
An evolution has taken place the last decade that has produced a group of young African American politicians who have been able to transcend race. This is primarily because of the emergence of the black middle class and the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus. These are two very important entities that have made it possible for race to no longer be the center piece of a campaign.
As the black middle class has emerged, more and more people of color have become part of the norm in politics. This has made it possible for Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker (D), former Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee (D) and Congressman Arthur Davis of Alabama (D) to represent categorical signs of progress to the point where now a black candidate can go out and win white support. Another example is the number of black Republicans running for election across the country, from a largely white swath of beach communities in Florida to the suburbs of Phoenix, Ariz.
Former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts, who was the first African American from Oklahoma to win statewide office, came with a football pedigree as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the University of Oklahoma football. That gave him a different kind of notoriety than other candidates. The House has not had a black Republican since Watts left in 2003 after an eight year tenure.
Political strategists have said that in order for black candidates to gain broad support, they must have likability, personality, sound insight, great communications skills, commitment to a cause, persuasiveness, loyalty from the people around them and—most importantly—money. This is true of every politician, but in order for an African American politician to win over a predominantly white constituency, it’s vital.
“You just don’t wake up and say I’m going to run,” said Angela Williams, who if elected this fall will be the only African American woman in the Colorado state legislature as a Democrat. “If you’re not actively known for contributing back into your community, then you’re not in the mainstream. I think this is a part of building that foundation to get ready to run for office. Secondly, I believe a candidate must visit and gain the support of past and present political and civic leaders. Finally, a candidate must have the ability to mobilize resources. And of course people and money, that’s what wins campaigns.”
Williams, who came out the nonprofit sector, noted several obstacles one can face when running for office in a district that is 47 percent white. What seemed most perplexing was the mere idea that a person should be a policy wonk. She noted that having smart people around you is the most important commodity to any candidate. With the right credibility, integrity, honesty, branding, and likability, she believes winning is possible.
“I believe I have branded myself through the leadership in my community,” Williams said. “Being a business owner has helped a lot. I think being personable, building relationships and being a woman of my word has helped me prepare to run for office and create an image and a brand. ”
Putting a team together is critical when preparing to run for office. It requires recruiting people loyal enough to help craft the necessary message and representation to win. It’s fundamental to the candidate’s survival. What are the key parts and who are the key people who know the candidate well enough to help them execute a vision?
“You have to appreciate and value those who are giving their time and talents and those who are going to be loyal to you through thick and thin,” said Williams. “This is a long process and you must have a plan. When we built the plan, I used a campaign consultant and a steering committee team to go through that plan.”
With the abundance of information online these days (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), every aspect of a campaign is important. There has to be someone who understands technology, social networking, marketing and fundraising. It’s important for any candidate, white or black, to understand the marketplace, but it’s crucial for an African American candidate who is running in a district where most of the people may look different from him or her.
“If you’re in a racially charged environment you’re going to have to diffuse that as quickly possible,” said Republican strategist Lenny McAlister, who ran for City Council in Davidson, N.C., a city that is approximately 80 percent white. “You’re going to have to get back to issues and give yourself a chance to get on equal footing. More often than not, African American candidates, especially as you go further up the ladder, don’t have the resources necessary to compete. Even Barack Obama the candidate had to answer the questions of race somewhat, but he at least had money and funding, whereas most other African American candidates running for office—and that includes city council all the way up to the US Senate—they’re fighting both of those battles simultaneously.”
This was supposed to be the year of the African American candidate. More than 30 ran for Congress on the Republican ticket. This was the year where things were supposed to be different. Then came the primaries.
In Alabama, Les Phillip lost to both of his white opponents. Incumbent Parker Griffith, a former Democrat who switched parties last year, beat Phillip by 17 points. Baptist minister Jerry Grimes lost in North Carolina’s 1st District, and Lou Huddleston, who won a Cumberland County North Carolina Republican Party straw poll in February, lost badly in the 8th District. Despite his years of service as an aide to Colin Powell, Huddleston proved no match for Tim D’Annunzio, a businessman who raised money with “machine gun socials.’’ (For $25, supporters got a plate of barbecue and the opportunity to shoot an Uzi.) In Mississippi, Fox News analyst Angela McGlowan, endorsed by none other than former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, lost to both her competitors, claiming only 15 percent of the vote.
Party officials and the candidates themselves acknowledge with these defeats that they still have uphill fights in both the primaries and the general elections, but they say that black Republicans are running with a confidence they have never had before. With that said, it seems voters are less excited than the news media about the 2010 crop of African American conservative candidates.
“I’m not surprised,” said Republican James Jones, an African American candidate who ran against Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District and lost. “Even as a supporter of the Tea Party, it wasn’t enough. What Barack had is mass appeal. But that’s on the Democratic side of the aisle. It’s hard to get that in the Republican Party. I’m proud of myself and the group of us and other people of color in general for believing that anything is possible, but politics is about image.”
Jones added that you can’t simply jump up and say, “Just because Barack did it, I can too!” “If people are going to win or come close to winning, like Harold Ford did in Tennessee, you have to be extremely thorough,” concluded Jones. “We still have a long way to go.”
Zack Burgess is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and the owner of the Philadelphia-based consulting firm, Off Woodward Media.