Is black politics dead in California?

The steep decline in the number of powerful black officeholders could be a sign of the community's political maturity -- or its demise.

Anthony York
June 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Last November, Republicans across the country were stunned to see Democrats pick up five seats in the House of Representatives and hold on to their 45 seats in the U.S. Senate. Across much of the country, African-American voters were credited for turning out in defense of President Clinton, rebuking the overzealous impeachment managers and the Republican congressional leadership.

But even as Clinton allies like Rep. Maxine Waters and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were accepting congratulations on the black mobilization -- and talking about what they expected in return -- the political story in California was very different. In 1998, Latinos eclipsed African-Americans as political players in the state, surging from 7 percent of the total electorate in 1990 to 14 percent, while blacks stayed level at 7 percent. Californians elected the first Latino to statewide office this century, and the new legislative class had a record 26-member Latino caucus, while the black caucus was pared back to six .


The election results crystallized what has become increasingly obvious over the last decade: Black political power is on the wane in California.

Less than 20 years ago, black political power was at its peak here. In the early 1980s, Willie Brown of San Francisco was speaker of the Assembly, and he eventually became the state's most powerful Democrat. Tom Bradley was entering his third term as mayor of Los Angeles. Lionel Wilson was mayor of Oakland, perhaps the capital of black California, with black majorities on the City Council and School Board. Wilson Riles was finishing his third term as the state's superintendent of public instruction, and Los Angeles Democrat Mervin Dymally was lieutenant governor.

In 1982, Bradley earned the Democratic nomination for governor, marking the first time a black had run at the top of the ticket in California. Though polls showed him leading Republican George Deukmejian on Election Day, Bradley lost the election by 52,295 votes out of the 7.5 million cast -- or 0.6 percent. But that apex of African-American political power is a distant California memory.


"Black politics is at an incredibly crucial point," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "Nowhere in the country were black politics as successful as they were in California. From the mid-1970s to the mid-'90s, blacks were overrepresented in the Legislature when compared to their percentage of the population. Plus, you had Bradley, Wilson Riles, Merv Dymally and Willie Brown, who were all elected to positions of power outside of black districts."

Today, that power has largely eroded. While the numbers of blacks elected to local office has remained relatively constant, they are scattered across the state, and in big cities, black elected officials have lost much of their clout. Today, the speaker of the Assembly is not black, but Latino, and the mayor of Los Angeles, Republican Richard Riordan, is white. In a nationally watched election earlier this month, a Riordan-backed School Board slate defeated three incumbents, including African-American Barbara Boudreaux, who had the support of most of the black political establishment.

Meanwhile, the city of Oakland, with a plurality of African-American residents, is now represented by a white mayor -- former Gov. Jerry Brown -- as well as a white state senator and white assemblywoman, and a racially mixed City Council and School Board. Across the bay, Willie Brown is the embattled mayor of San Francisco, with sagging popularity and a tough reelection bid coming this fall. And there is not a single black representative from Northern California in the state Legislature.


There are as many explanations for the decline in black political power as there are examples of it. One is simply demographic: Blacks are no longer the largest minority in California, Latinos are, and their political power is being eclipsed as Latinos play catch-up. Another is a backlash among black voters against the black political establishment -- as was seen both in Los Angeles and Oakland this year. There has also been a generational shift in black leadership, with a new generation of black political leaders emerging without the strong grass-roots ties of their predecessors.

And finally, there's some good news in what seems like a bad-news story: As opportunities have opened up for the state's burgeoning black middle class, politics is no longer so important. Some observers have even suggested the decline in black representation represents a new maturity among black voters, who are no longer bloc-voting for blacks, but choosing the best candidate.


One unmistakable factor in the decline of black politics is the rise of Latino power in California. Drive through the old heart of black Los Angeles -- Watts, Lynwood, Compton -- and you'll see Spanish-language billboards at the foot of the Watts Towers. Drive down Compton's Rosecrans Avenue, past Harriet Tubman High School, and for every corner Baptist Church, you'll see a 50-cent taco stand or supermercado. Only 10 years ago, South Central Los Angeles was known as the West Coast hip-hop home of gangsta rap. Today, it's ground zero for the exponential growth of California's Latino population, which has fascinated demographers and political strategists throughout the latter half of the 1990s.

A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Latinos made up 31 percent of the state's population in 1997, up from 26 percent in 1990. Linda Gage, a demographer for the state Department of Finance, estimates that Latinos will be a plurality in California by the year 2020, surpassing even the white population.

To date, black political losses at the congressional and legislative level have not benefited Latinos. Not a single black seat has been lost to a Latino challenger. But that will all change in 2002, after the new census is taken and mapmakers redraw California's political districts. As the districts reflect the new burgeoning Latino population, and with Latinos flocking to the polls in record numbers, the next round of lost black seats will be filled by Latinos.


This surge in Latino clout is not simply a matter of demographic shifts. Latinos have begun to vote and mobilize politically in response to the bitter anti-Latino tone that poisoned California politics during the last half of the 1990s. Just as the civil rights movement rallied blacks to the polls and the streets in the 1960s and '70s, the 1990s have brought a fusion of social movement and electoral politics in the Latino community. The surge in Latino participation in California was the culmination of four years of backlash aimed primarily at outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187, the Wilson-supported ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 1994, which would have eliminated social benefits for undocumented immigrants. The measure was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court, but a possible settlement is currently being mediated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

As anti-immigrant fervor dominated the state's political debate in 1994, even Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein campaigned on a platform that included beefed-up patrolling of the California-Mexico border. Facing reelection in 1996, President Clinton signed off on a welfare reform bill that stripped benefits from legal immigrants.

The growth in Latino population and voter participation has led to a further division of resources that were previously focused on increasing African-American participation almost exclusively. Organized labor, once a major force in organizing African-American communities, saw its influence diminish during the 1980s. Today labor is in resurgence in California, and it has spawned a new generation of leaders -- most of them Latino. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, headed by Miguel Contreras, is arguably the most important endorsement in Los Angeles politics today. Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the California Assembly and likely candidate for Los Angeles mayor in 2001, got his political start as a union organizer. The most active voter registration organization is the Southwest Voter Foundation, whose registration drives in Latino areas were seen as key components in the election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the previously Republican bastion of Orange County.


"There has been a reduction in the number of blacks elected to office because the political process has changed," said San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. "There's really no longer an appreciation of black communities as the anchor tenant of Democratic Party successes. Resources of the Democratic Party and organized labor are no longer [exclusively] targeted at African-Americans."

As other groups take the political spotlight and resources away from African-Americans, the infrastructure for black politics in California has atrophied. Just 30 years ago, black churches, along with groups such as the NAACP and other community organizations, launched a massive public battle to end housing and school segregation in California. That battle was fought with grass-roots organizing, with help from organized labor and massive voter registration drives within the black community.

"Now, the NAACP and the faith and community organizations don't do politics as a central piece of their agenda," Brown said. "Their resources are directed at something other than politics. If they were directed at politics, you would see continuous improvement in the voter participation by African-Americans."

Latinos are simply better funded and better organized than African-Americans today, Brown says, and more focused on electing Latino leaders to represent them. Brown shrugs as he predicts the trend of increased Latino political power will continue statewide, and that, in some places, it will come at the expense of black power. But he also predicts that as the Latino population matures politically, a sense of equilibrium will take hold and diminish "blind, ethnic voting. That pride thing has to get out of the way and then the issues come back to the forefront. But in politics, you have to go through your series of firsts. [Latinos] have increasingly dominant numbers in some specific districts. Until they have their time, crossover voting will not take place. The future ultimately is in the ability to build coalitions regardless of ethnicity, but that happens afterward."


Brown's long-term view, peppered with optimism, was echoed by newly elected Assemblyman Herb Wesson. "You have a Latino population going through what African-Americans went through 25 years ago," Wesson said. "I applaud what they're doing and respect it. But after a while, people will base their decisions on the actions and the past deeds of the candidates themselves. You don't just want to elect an individual just because they're of the same ethnic background."

Much of the credit for the success of Latino politicians statewide goes to state Sen. Richard Polanco. Together with political strategist Richie Ross, a former Willie Brown staffer, Polanco has aggressively recruited Latino candidates to run in Democratic districts that are not necessarily "Latino districts."

The result of those efforts has been an explosion in the representation of Latinos in the state Legislature. More than 20 percent of the California Legislature is now Latino, and last year, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante became the first Latino elected to statewide office this century. There are now Latinos, including four Republicans, representing conservative bastions like Riverside County and Bakersfield as well as the east side of Los Angeles.

Until now, that kind of diversity has proved elusive for African-Americans, despite similar recruitment efforts. "It's very clear that Latinos can win with as little as 20 percent [Latino] registration in a district," said GOP strategist Tony Quinn. "Blacks typically need about 50 percent. Many of the black candidates are far too liberal and too race-oriented to win statewide. What you're not getting is blacks winning the middle class. To do that, you've got to have somebody who talks about more than just ethnic politics."


Democratic demographer and mapmaker Bill Cavala had a different take, noting that the prejudice against African-Americans has deep roots that today's African-American politicians must still overcome. "With Latinos, it's more a prejudice against a social class," he said. "With African-Americans, I think racism is more deep-seated than with any other group in this country."

One could ask whether any of this matters. The heyday of black political power didn't necessarily lead to black economic or social power. Many American cities continued their decline under black mayors as more and more Americans sought refuge in the suburbs. Though estimates have charted a fourfold growth in the African-American middle class over the last 30 years, African-Americans still make up the largest segment the welfare population in most California cities. Unemployment and poverty levels in the black community are still in double digits in many places, and disproportionately higher than the rest of the population.

Black political power, of course, was supposed to redress all that. The first generation of black politicians in California campaigned against social and economic injustice and a corrupt political establishment. But a generation later, many entrenched black leaders have come to symbolize the very establishment they were elected to oppose. Willie Brown was sold as the poster child for legislative term limits, which were approved by California voters in 1990. Republicans used Brown as an example of a corrupt political boss who wielded power with an iron fist, and who could only be displaced by term limits. While there was, no doubt, racism in the way Brown was used by white politicians, it was also true that he ruled much like previous rulers, with much more attention to the needs of campaign donors and supporters than those of dispossessed black Californians.

But the two best examples of the way complacency and status quo politics have hurt black politicians are the recent defeat of former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris in his bid to represent Oakland in the state Assembly, and the June 8 election for a seat on the Los Angeles School Board -- a contest between two African-American women, in which Riordan-backed challenger Genethia Hayes ousted incumbent Barbara Boudreaux.


Harris was embarrassed earlier this year when he was defeated by political novice Audie Bock, who became the first member of the Green Party elected to the California Legislature. Bock's election was seen as a referendum not on the Greens, but on Harris, who served as Oakland mayor for eight years.

Bock's campaign received a boost from white Democrats -- who turned out in disproportionately high numbers in a district with a plurality of African-American voters -- and, by default, from black voters, who did not turn out for Harris. The campaign was effectively "Anyone but Elihu"; Bock's slogan was "Vote Green, Not Machine." The first signs of trouble for the Harris campaign came after the Democratic Party sent out a controversial mailer during the runoff election in February. The mailer, sent to predominantly African-American communities, rewarded voters with a free chicken dinner if they provided proof they went to the polls. Bock and others criticized the mailer following the primary, calling it a bribe with racial overtones to bring black voters to the polls.

Bock's victory marked the first time in half a century that the entire Bay Area legislative delegation is without an African-American representative in Sacramento.

"In the primary, Elihu got 49 percent of the vote, and a lot of us just coasted," said state Sen. Kevin Murray, chairman of the legislative black caucus. "There's plenty of blame to go around. Now, we've got to look for an African-American candidate to try to win back that seat. That should be an African-American seat. The Bay Area needs to have an African-American representative."

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the black political establishment was rebuffed when incumbent School Board member Boudreaux lost her reelection bid to community activist Hayes, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Hayes was backed by Mayor Riordan, who has made education reform a top priority during his second term. Riordan's support, and fund-raising assistance, for Hayes enraged Boudreaux's supporters, and mud flew back and forth between the two camps in buckets. Boudreaux called Hayes an "in-house slave" and said Riordan was playing "plantation politics" to "control the workers in the field." Boudreaux's supporters insisted Riordan's School Board slate was just the first step toward the privatization of the city's school system.

But the message failed to stick. Hayes out-polled Boudreaux in the primary, and eked out a narrow victory in the June 8 runoff.

Maxine Waters, who was a strong supporter of Boudreaux, warns that the consequences of Riordan playing a pivotal role in African-American politics "opens up a whole Pandora's box. When I first got elected, [former Assembly Speaker] Jess Unruh raised all the money. We got elected, but Big Daddy held the purse strings. Black elected officials got off that train. You don't get elected with the mayor's help without consequences. That kind of imbalance, where money makes all the difference, is to be feared rather than revered."

That advice has been taken to heart by some of the new crop of black legislators. Wesson, a freshman assemblyman and chair of the legislative committee that oversees gambling, tobacco and alcohol legislation, has quickly made a name for himself as a prodigious fund-raiser. He has raised more than $500,000 since he announced his candidacy last year, and raked in more than $100,000 in one night at a recent event, unprecedented for a first-term legislator. Because of his fund-raising prowess, Wesson has emerged as a potential power broker, a member of a new generation of black political professionals.

Of course, some might say that the kowtowing to special interests such fund-raising requires will make it hard for politicians like Wesson to galvanize alienated black voters and get them to the polls. Not surprisingly, Wesson disagrees.

"In the past, there were a couple of individuals like Tom Bradley and Merv Dymally who could be considered the fathers of African-American politics," Wesson said. "But it was just a period of coming of age. Now, we just don't have the numbers we once did. Because of that, we have to be coalition builders, and we have to pick our shots. The key to political power, when you don't have a majority, is to consolidate your power and leverage it.

"Given my chairmanship, it is part of my off-duty function to raise money for the party," Wesson continues. "And I don't want it to be said that I don't deliver for the Democratic Party."

It is Thursday afternoon on the corner of Centinela and La Tijera in the Ladera Heights section of Los Angeles. Inside a local Starbucks, five young, well-dressed men sit around a table of half-drunk lattes and Frapuccinos as Ella Fitzgerald scats quietly in the background. Outside, college students take in the afternoon sunshine huddled over laptops and molecular biology texts as a new Toyota Land Cruiser slowly rolls by, bass bumping.

It is a quintessential Los Angeles scene: Everyone who passes by is impeccably dressed and drop-dead beautiful, and they all seem to have cell phones in their hand. The only thing separating this Starbucks from one in Encino or Beverly Hills is the fact that everybody in this cafe is African-American.

In the last 20 years, Ladera Heights has become a bastion of Los Angeles' black middle class. (According to U.S. Census statistics, the country's black middle class has nearly quadrupled in size since the pinnacle of the civil rights movement in 1968.) This is also the political home of Kevin Murray, whose state Senate district includes Ladera Heights. Murray is typical of a new breed of African-American politician. He comes from a middle-class background, the scion of a prominent political family. His father, Willard, served in the state Legislature before him, and his sister Melinda was nearly elected to her father's Assembly seat in 1996.

For better or for worse, Murray and Wesson are symbols of the maturity of black politics. They are members of the second generation, a new generation of black political leaders with more connections to political insiders and a more distant connection to the grass roots. Increasingly, black elected officials are not coming out of Head Start, like Waters, or the fight for housing desegregation, where Willie Brown launched his political career. While Ron Dellums got his start fighting the war on poverty, Murray had more traditional political training as a lawyer, and learned politics at his father's knee. While Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke has her roots as a social worker, Wesson got his start learning from Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Burke herself.

Waters warns that this new generation of African-American politicians cannot be complacent if it hopes to increase political participation in the black community. "Speaking to the issues of young African-Americans requires you to get off the kind of well-protected incumbency political agenda. You can't be an ordinary politician who simply does all of the face stuff. The generation, be it poor, middle class or wealthy, relates to certain issues, but you've got to come into the community and talk about those issues."

It should also be said that black politicians have never been the most important leaders in the black community. In fact, the nation's most prominent African-American leaders haven't come from electoral politics. From the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Stokely Carmichael to Louis Farrakhan, black leaders have a tradition of coming from religious or community groups. "That's still true," said Guerra, of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles. "When you look at the most important figures in the black community today -- Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan -- these people are not elected officials. There is the same kind of disconnect between black politicians and constituents as we see with other groups."

Other African-American leaders, like Waters, said today's young blacks are overwhelmingly drawn to careers outside the political realm, and that politics does not hold the same promise for change that it did only a generation ago. "You've got to realize that you're dealing with the hip-hop generation, whether you like it or not," Waters said. "Even in the colleges, my young lawyers want to be managers and agents. Everyone wants to be involved, either on the business side or the creative side of it. They can benefit from the large profits that are being made. And they like hip hop."

In addition to other, more potent lures for young African-Americans, Waters said a pervasive cynicism and distrust of government has worsened the problem. Still, she argued, that should not be mistaken for apathy. "They identify with issues," Waters said. "The CIA-crack cocaine issue is an issue that got me so overwhelmed with response from young African-Americans that I couldn't even keep up with."

Unlike Waters, state Sen. Murray says the rise of political professionalism within the black community will lead to positive changes in black leadership and more black representation statewide. "In the past, it was easy to just rely on Willie [Brown] to take care of it," he said. "But African-American politics is not dependent on political machines the way Latino politics is. Those types of machines have not served us well in the past."

These changes all come as the vanguard of California black leadership is slowly fading, and the new generation of black leaders like Murray and Herb Wesson has yet to fully come into its own. Guerra says part of the waning interest in black politics has as much to do with the American system of government as it does with demographic or generational shifts. "Social change does not occur through standard electoral politics," he said. "Electoral politics only codifies social change."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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