Black legislators' new era

There are 41 full voting African-American members of Congress, a number that has remained more or less unchanged for more than a decade. The reason: most African-American members represent districts whose chief constituency is black voters.

The number of these districts increased steadily in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s but appears to have topped out. Gains for blacks in Congress are possible, however, if they are elected to represent non-minority districts, a trend that may have already begun.

There are 41 full voting African-American members of Congress, a number that has remained more or less unchanged for more than a decade. The reason: most African-American members represent districts whose chief constituency is black voters.

The number of these districts increased steadily in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s but appears to have topped out. Gains for blacks in Congress are possible, however, if they are elected to represent non-minority districts, a trend that may have already begun.

First, consider how far Congress has come in black representation. In 1963, there were four black members, 17 by 1973, 20 by 1983 and 40 by 1993. Today, each of the 20 states with the highest total black population has a black representative in Congress.

But the rise of black members has coincided with redistricting after each decennial census, as the civil-rights acts of the 1960s encouraged the drawing of black-majority districts. While there might in theory be room for a few more majority or plurality black districts, in practice we are stuck in the mid-30s. Of the current 41 black members, 36 represent majority-minority districts.

Further gains in the number of African-American members of Congress will likely come from black members representing majority-white districts, and there are some hopeful signs that this will occur.

First, consider the Republicans. Despite the Herculean efforts of RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, it will be a long time before Republicans regularly receive a substantial proportion of the black vote. President Bush only received 9 and 11 percent of the black vote in 2000 and 2004, respectively. You can count on one hand the number of black Republicans in Congress since the early 1930s: Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts and Reps. Gary Franks of Connecticut and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. Each represented overwhelmingly white jurisdictions.

Since Watts’s retirement in 2002, Republicans have had no congressional black representation. But there are black Republicans who have promising futures. Dylan Glenn lost a spirited Georgia primary to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland.

And Republicans have a number of credible candidates running statewide (no, I am not talking about Alan Keyes), appealing to a white-majority electorate. Michael Steele and Ken Blackwell running for Senate in Maryland and for governor in Ohio, respectively, are impressive candidates who will make strong runs statewide, although both are probably slight underdogs at this point. Republicans also have Lynn Swann running for governor of Pennsylvania and Keith Butler for Senate in Michigan, and there are rumors that J.C. Watts may run for governor of Oklahoma in the future.

But while modest gains are possible for black Republicans, black Democrats have the best chance of branching out beyond usual constituencies. Until recently, there are only a few prominent examples of Democrats who have won office in white-majority districts. Black Democrats have only won three elections for governor or senator: Virginia’s Gov. Douglas Wilder in 1989 and Illinois Sens. Carol Moseley Braun in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2004. In the House, Reps. Sanford Bishop and Julia Carson have represented white-majority districts in the past, and they are joined in the 109th Congress by Emmanuel Cleaver and Gwen Moore.

Despite the modest numbers, there are signs of a new generation of black leaders who may be more able to appeal to white as well as black voters. In 1990, the vast majority of the Congressional Black Caucus had lived through and had often been leaders in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. Today, 26 of the 41 members are 60 years old or younger, which means they were not even of college age when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech.

On the whole, this generation is less liberal than its predecessors, more appealing to moderate Democrats and Republicans, and more electable in non-majority-minority districts.
A few examples: Reps. Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.) and David Scott (Ga.) are members of the conservative Blue Dog coalition. Rep. Albert Wynn (Md.) and Ford have worked across the aisle on high-profile issues such as campaign finance and social security reform. In the 108th Congress, 10 black members had National Journal vote scores that were more conservative than the median Democratic member.

While the number of African-Americans in Congress has remained the same, the prospects for greater black representation are brighter, as we will likely see more black representatives representing non-minority districts — a good thing for the caucus, the Congress and the country.

Fortier is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.