By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
First there was Green Party candidate, Audie Bock. In 1999 she stunned political experts and beat long-term black Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris for an assembly seat in a special election in Oakland. Next, there was Jerry Brown. The controversial and iconoclastic former California governor had been out of politics for seemingly eons, yet still trounced a field of black candidates to win the Oakland mayor’s spot. Bock and Brown are white and they still beat black candidates and a seasoned black incumbent in a city where blacks still made up the majority of voters. Their victories spelled trouble, big trouble, for black politicians not only in Oakland and the Bay Area, but statewide, and maybe even nationally.
Now there’s former Congressman Ron Dellums. The near septuagenarian almost certainly recognizes the danger signs. His bid for Oakland mayor is as much about reversing the free-fall of black politicians as winning a mayor’s seat. Though Dellums represents the old guard, it’s the old guard that still has the political savvy, name recognition and charisma to win a major office. And that also tells much about the failure of black politicians to mentor a new breed of younger blacks for political office.
A likely Dellums victory will be more about one man’s personal triumph than a reversal of that disturbing pattern. But it should be, because things are that bad.
When the state legislature met in the early 1990s, there were nearly a dozen blacks in the state legislature, and blacks held the mayorships in three of the state’s four biggest cities: Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. Since then, the number of legislators has dwindled to half that total, and blacks hold no mayorships in any of California’s major cities. There are no black state representatives north of L.A. County.
While blacks have sped backwards politically in state politics, Latinos and Asians have rocketed forward. Latinos hold about one-third of the seats in the legislature, the lieutenant governor post and some of the most visible positions in state government. The number of Asian elected officials is more than double that of blacks statewide.
Nationally, the growth in the number of black elected officials has stagnated. Black politicians blame their political slide on voter apathy, alienation, inner city population drops, suburban integration and displacement by Latinos and increasingly Asians. These factors have contributed to the fall-off. But black politicians must also share much of the blame. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., public policy think tank, found that the frustration of many black voters with black politicians has soared so high that less than one out of four eligible black voters bothered to cast a ballot in many recent municipal and statewide elections. Many black politicians make little effort to inform the black public of vital legislation and political actions that directly impact black communities. Their all-consuming obsession is to elect more black Democrats to office and to retain those already there.
Black politicians are also crippled by their near total dependence on the Democratic Party for patronage, support, and assorted party favors. Few would dare break ranks with the party and attempt to pressure the Republican Party to take black issues seriously. Many Latino and Asian leaders and elected officials, on the other hand, are not straight-jacketed by mind-numbing obedience to the Democratic Party. They have pushed the Democrats and Republicans to knock off the immigrant bashing, increase funding for bilingual education programs, champion Latino political representation and spend millions on outreach programs to Latino voters. They are leaving blacks in the political dust.
The plunging number of black elected officials should be a wake-up call for black leaders. Guilt-laced appeals for “black solidarity” and voter registration caravans and buses are not going to make blacks dash to the polls to vote for politicians they feel have failed them. They will, however, jam the polls to vote for politicians they feel are genuinely concerned about their plight, no matter what their color. The Brown and Bock victories, and the victories of whites to mayorships in big cities across the country proved that.
Black politicians must find a way to reconnect with the black poor and craft an agenda that can motivate, inspire and renew the belief that black politicians can deliver the goods. That agenda must emphasize jobs, quality schools, health care and police accountability. Black elected officials must also broaden their agendas to build coalitions and alliances with Latinos and Asians.
Those black politicians who can adapt to the rapidly changing class and ethnic realities in California and nationally will survive and be effective players in state and national politics. Those who can’t will vanish from the political radarscope. A Dellums win in Oakland won’t change that political truth.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and political analyst.