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WEB POSTED 04-23-2002
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The newest roster of Black-elected officials released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that their number has grown to 9,040. This is a long way from the 1,500 Black officials counted in 1970 when the Joint Center first began to keep these records, but it raises the question of the nature of the gains that have been made because of such growth.

Increases were recorded in 19 states, with Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York leading the way and the increases were mostly among judges and other law enforcement officials. Otherwise, some key trends are apparent in these results. First, Black women are making strides. They account for all of the net increase of 104 officials between 1999 and 2000. Women now constitute 35 percent of all Black-elected officials, a number that has been growing by roughly 1 percent per year. At the same time, the latest roster shows that for the second year in a row, the number of Black males elected to office continued to decline. One reason for this is the growth in the number of Black women enrolled and graduating from colleges and universities, not only at the undergraduate level, but also in graduate and professional schools such as law, where they have outstripped the number of Black males in recent years.

Moreover, Black women have developed their own "old-girls club" of political appointees, which also has grown substantially, increasing the pool of those eligible to run for office on credible records. A prime example of this trend is the recent appointment of Regina Thomas as secretary of state for New Jersey. Appointed by Gov. James McGreevy, Thomas has been a tremendous grassroots organizer for the Democratic Party for several years, beginning on the national level with the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1984. Afterward, she became a prime organizer for the Democratic National Committee, directing field operations all over the country for local candidates and nationally for Al Gore. Her record of political contacts now includes some of the most widely respected politicians in the country, including a number of experienced Black women politicians and appointees.

Another trend in the findings is that nearly 60 percent of the cities presided over by Black mayors now do not have Black majority populations. While there has always been a healthy number of Black-elected officials in White majority jurisdictions, this change is significant because it suggests there are a limited number of Black majority cities, Blacks will have to run in White majority settings. What this will do to the character of Black mayors is not certain, since it will make it increasingly difficult to generalize about their positions on various issues. One clear example of this is the vice-mayor of Cincinnati, who is Black but does not support the economic boycott called against the city by the Black community because of repeated instances of police brutality.

Then, while there was a slight decrease in the number of Blacks holding elected statewide offices between 1999 and 2000 (from 35 to 33), and 65 percent of these were judges, there are still a substantial number remaining who could run for statewide office in the future. This list includes a possible match-up between Lt. Gov. Joe Rogers of Colorado, who as a Black Republican, might also run against the Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, who also is Black. In the current election cycle, there were nine Blacks running for statewide office, such as U.S. senator or governor, the largest number in history. More about that later.

Lastly, while there are increases in the number of Black- elected officials, there has also been generational change. The Joint Center study indicates that about 25 percent of elected officials have been replaced, usually by younger people. Dramatic evidence of this was the election of 31-year-old Kwame Kilpatrick, a former state representative, as mayor of Detroit.

What changes will result is not certain, as previous Joint Center surveys have indicated differences between younger Blacks and others on issues such as Social Security and retirement, political partisanship and school vouchers. However, as public servants, these younger politicians cannot change much more than their constituents will allow.

The hard question to answer about the increased number of Black-elected officials is what difference they will make. My answer would be marginal. The political bodies in which they operate have not favored liberal public policies in the past two decades. In fact, we know that institutional politics is marked by gradual change—if there’s change at all—which is another reason for the younger generation to continue to consider more dynamic methods of achieving their goals.

(Ronald Walters is distinguished leadership scholar, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and co-author of "African American Politics.")

 

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