The Changing Color of U.S. Politics

By Poinsett, Alex | Ebony, August 1991 | Go to article overview

The Changing Color of U.S. Politics


Poinsett, Alex, Ebony


PERHAPS the best example of the changing color of American life and politics is the number of Black politicians who represent predominantly White electorates. Almost all Americans know that L. Douglas Wilder, the first Black governor since Reconstruction, represents the 81.2 percent White constituency of the commonwealth of Virginia. But Wilder is not unique. For three Blacks have been elected to statewide office in Illinois, Michigan and Connecticut, and there is a growing trend for predominantly White cities to elect Black mayors. In fact, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Black mayors now head 16 majority-White cities with populations of 50,000 or more, while only 14 majority-Black cities with 50,000 or more citizens are headed by Black mayors.

The reasons for the success of Black politicians is predominantly. White areas vary from David Dinkins' coalition politics in New York City, to the hypnotic hold of the Rev. Noel Taylor-a Republican opposed only once since his first election in Roanoke, Va., in 1976 - to the massive popularity of John Daniels Jr. in New Haven, Conn.

Having won 70 percent of the vote in 1989 (including 50 percent of White voters), Daniels nevertheless complains that Black mayors have been inheriting bankrupt cities. "I inherited a $30 million deficit which resulted from poor management," he says. "I've been so busy trying to save New Haven from bankruptcy, I haven't had time to institute my own agenda."

Meanwhile, mayors as diverse as Thomas Bradley of Los Angeles and the late Harold Washington of Chicago have included all ethnic groups in their administrations in numbers far exceeding their predecessors. "Washington's major achievement was to destroy Chicago's political machine with its patronage benefitting the few," notes Harvard University's Dr. Linda Williams. "He replaced that system with a reform structure dedicated to upgrading services in all areas of the city to benefit all."

As mayors of the nation's two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, Dinkins and Bradley are models of coalition politics. Having built Black-White-Brown coalitions to win their elections, both seek to unite ethnic and political factions within their cities. Bradley is serving a record fifth term.

"For whatever reason, people are beginning to look beyond race," observes Michelle Kourouma, executive director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, "they recognize that the city, the state or whatever entity is not going to die just because an African-American is elected."

Indeed, Black political power in some city halls has reduced Black business failure rates and created more jobs for minority workers, according to a Joint Center study. For example, during his first term of office, Atlanta's Mayor Maynard H. Jackson insisted that he would let crab grass grow on the site selected for a $750 million airport project unless Blacks received at least 25 percent of the action. By the time the project was completed in September 1980-, 71 of 200 firms involved in the construction were Black, and they handled contracts totaling $87 million. The 1,800-members work force included 800 minorities.

More recently, Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, 39, has campaigned for an excise tax to partially fund a new baseball stadium and arena for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers, thus creating thousands of jobs and spawning new development.

After Mayor Richard C. Dixon, 59, completed the unexpired two years of his predecessor, some 60 percent of the voters chose him in 1989 to continue running Dayton, Ohio for four more years. Pushing corporate investment in the city under its successful Enterprise Zone Program, he also has launched a $10 million Neighborhood Lending Program offering below-market interest rate home improvement loans.

Having served 11 years on the Seattle City Council, Norman B. Rice was elected to a four-year term as mayor of Seattle in 1989, with broad support from 57 percent of Seattle voters. …

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