Blacks and High Profile Statewide Office: 1966-1996

By Jeffries, Judson L. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Blacks and High Profile Statewide Office: 1966-1996


Jeffries, Judson L., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Abstract

This is a comprehensive and systematic study of the election campaigns of all blacks who have run for high profile statewide office from 1966 to 1996. Using the flagship news dailies for each state where elections were held the author compares and contrasts the winners and losers in order to explain why blacks have experienced little success at the statewide level and what they need to do in order to win high profile statewide elections. The author also uses in-depth interviews with former U.S. Senator Edward W. Brooke and Governor L. Douglas Wilder to augment the secondary sources used. The author notes that because whites are reluctant to vote for black candidates, particularly black high profile statewide aspirants, blacks have to serve an appropriate political apprenticeship, have strong party support and implement an effective deracialized campaign strategy if they hope to offset the potential damaging effects of race. This does not mean that abstention or defection among white voters will cease, only that the above factors will help to reduce the degree to which that behavior occurs.

The number of black elected officials has increased steadily since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to that time less than 150 blacks had been elected to public office. By 1993, there were over 8,000 black elected officials. Of these 8,000 black politicians over 300 were mayors (Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 1970-1993). By contrast, blacks have not experienced the same kind of success at the statewide level. The number of blacks who have been elected to statewide office pales in comparison to black mayoral success. The number of black high profile statewide office holders is even smaller. High profile statewide office is defined by the author as the office of governor and United States senator. Only three blacks have ever won high profile statewide contests.

Previous Literature and its Limitations

In 1990, Raphael Sonenshein wrote a pioneering work titled, "Can Blacks Win Statewide Elections?" In this paper Sonenshein cited the difficulty blacks have had winning statewide offices vis-a-vis lower level offices like mayor and city council. Sonenshein sets out to explain this phenomenon by comparing the 1966 Massachusetts United States senate campaign of Edward W. Brooke, Tom Bradley's 1982 California gubernatorial campaign and the lieutenant governor's campaign of L. Douglas Wilder. Sonenshein concluded that despite the lack of success blacks have experienced in the past they can win statewide elections if they pay their political dues; run in states where whites have liberal attitudes; and develop a campaign strategy that appeals to white voters (Sonenshein, 1990).

There are three problems with Sonenshein's analysis. First, he includes the office of lieutenant governor in his study. While the lieutenant governor is a statewide position it is a less prominent office than that of governor or U.S. senate. As Jones (1991) says, the election of a black to secretary of state is not comparable to the election of a black governor or United States senator. Winning high profile statewide office appears to be more challenging than winning election to lower statewide offices. Since Sonenshein's study approximately ten blacks have been elected to lower statewide offices. By contrast, only two blacks have won high profile statewide contests. High profile statewide offices are different from lower statewide offices in several ways: they have infinitely more authority, power and responsibility. Hence, these offices have more influence over their constituents' lives. In addition, high profile statewide campaigns are generally more costly and solicit greater media and voter interest. And high profile statewide offices generally require that candidates possess stronger political credentials. One could argue that these elements have a direct impact on the electoral chances of black candidates. …

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