Rise of the new black leaders

A new generation of black politicians is striving to put racial patronage and civic corruption behind it, and unite an increasingly diverse nation.

Published December 12, 2005 11:44AM (EST)

Ron Dellums is a legend in Oakland, Calif. Thirty-five years ago, he was a passionate young congressman who went to Washington and denounced apartheid and the Vietnam War. He represented the town that spawned the Black Panthers and embodied black anger and ambition in America. His endorsement virtually guaranteed victory for any progressive young politician, and while he personally transcended crude racial politics, he was also the most celebrated African-American in a hard-luck town.

This Oct. 7, after almost a decade of retirement from public life, Dellums returned to Oakland, climbed the stage at the city's community college, and declared he was running for mayor. "If Ron Dellums running for mayor gives you hope," he said, "then let's get on with it!" The room exploded with cheers and politicos fell sobbing into each other's arms.

But Dellums is an odd sort of savior. For one thing, he made it clear he didn't want the job and had agreed to run only because hundreds of his old comrades begged him. For another, he's so, well, old. At age 69, Ron Dellums put politics behind him long ago and rarely set foot in Oakland over the years. An entire generation has grown up with no idea who he is. But in this election he's the last real chance for a black mayor to lead Oakland, once one of the country's epicenters of urban black life.

The case of Ron Dellums epitomizes a historic change in American politics. Dellums himself was always more than a machine pol; in fact, Rep. Barbara Lee called him "the father of coalition politics" in a recent e-mail to Salon. But the fans who tearfully rejoiced over his entry into the mayor's race represent all that is left of Oakland's racial old guard. They evoke a time when Oakland and black legislative districts around the country were run by leaders who often set up racial patronage systems, tolerated corruption and ineptitude, and never had to worry about competitive elections.

But today, particularly in the West, an era of black political power centered in urban enclaves is coming to an end. Latino migration is supplanting traditional African-American majorities in cities such as Compton and Los Angeles, and a rising black middle class is moving into the suburbs. California's inner cities are becoming less black and the political machines that have run them for decades are gasping their last breath. The number of black members of the California state Legislature has shrunk from nine in 1990 to six today, and no black state legislator holds office north of Los Angeles County. Tom Bradley ran Los Angeles for 20 years, Willie Brown ruled over San Francisco, and black mayors presided over Oakland from 1977 to 1998; today, none of those cities can boast an African-American mayor.

While at first glance this may seem like an unsettling development, it is also showing signs of producing a more responsive, transparent and sophisticated generation of African-American leaders.

Beginning with the Voting Rights Act in 1964, a wave of gerrymandering carved out black legislative districts around the nation, making race-based redistricting a legal right. According to Ana Henderson, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on voting rights issues, the act enabled minority plaintiffs who could cite racist voting patterns to force cities to draw " majority minority" city council districts. "If you can break the city down to districts, and have each councilmember elected out of a district, and you can draw a district that is majority minority, those minority voters are going to be able to elect a candidate of their choice," she says.

From the mid-'60s onward, a coalition of black Democrats and white Republicans began redrawing congressional districts by race. This alliance finally gave black politicians the power that is their natural birthright. In 1966, just six black congressmen held office; today 42 African-Americans sit in the House.

Clearly, African-American empowerment was a critical step in American democracy, and the promise of opportunity for millions of black citizens is hard to overstate. But black power also gave rise to the modern gerrymandering era in which incumbent politicians use computer demographic research to rig the drawing of legislative districts. In the West, gerrymandering coincided with a racial patronage system that allowed bureaucratic incompetence and corruption to fester, sometimes on a vast scale. In the South, the process squeezed out white Democratic leaders, ultimately helping the Republican Party retake Congress in 1994.

Today, gerrymandering poisons politics at every level, as operatives from both parties typically collude to create safe seats for their respective incumbents. In California, this has suppressed emerging immigrant communities, retarding the growth of basic democratic institutions. If Latino or Asian-American leaders can't achieve higher offices such as congressional or state legislative seats, as is often the case in gerrymandered districts in Southern California, they can't mentor a new generation of young leaders to take their place on school districts, city councils, and county boards of supervisors. Nationally, gerrymandering has crippled the possibility of political dialogue and compromise, as extremists from either side no longer have to appeal to those with moderate sentiments in their districts.

At the same time, however, urban patronage machines are showing signs of grinding to a halt. Black politics is maturing beyond the language of grievance and adopting an increasingly middle-class, entrepreneurial character. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of black-owned businesses grew by a staggering 45 percent. More and more black professionals are buying homes in outlying suburbs relatively free from gang violence and urban blight.

As they build middle-class lives, African-Americans are adopting middle-class values: an intolerance of corruption and an expectation of accountability from their political leaders. Having outgrown identity politics, they are forcing black leaders to run on their own merits in racially diverse districts. Throughout the country, they are demanding not just representative diversity but better government.

Nowhere is this more evident than in last month's reelection of New York's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who received half the black vote and 30 percent of the Latino vote, despite challenger Fernando Ferrer's deliberate campaign as a Latino candidate. In the election's aftermath, reported the New York Times, national Democratic Party leaders said they "needed to shun the racial and ethnic politicking of the past."

The grand era of identity politics was an inevitable and important outgrowth of the civil rights movement. But one need look no further than Oakland to see how racial patronage devolved into corruption and incompetency -- and how the city has since discarded such politics and learned to demand results from their leaders.

Black power rose in Oakland in the early '80s, as Mayor Lionel Wilson built a slim majority on the City Council, and the Rev. J. Alfred Smith managed a portfolio of untouchable bureaucrats from his pulpit at Allen Temple Baptist Church. Harold Davis, the head of the Oakland Housing Authority, spent more than 20 years running housing projects crippled by blight and patrolled by a criminal gang masquerading as a security service; at one point in 1991, one-quarter of the city's housing police had been found guilty of felony charges in federal court. Joe Samuels, Oakland's police chief in the 1990s, practically slept through his tenure as crack cocaine consumed the city. Every time someone moved to hold those leaders to account, the faithful at Allen Temple would storm City Hall and accuse critics of racism.

Nowhere was this policy of benign neglect more destructive than in the Oakland schools. As students posted dismal grades, stories of petty corruption abounded. A maintenance crew was accused of running a private house-painting business on district time, with maintenance trucks and equipment. One businessman connected to the school district allegedly ran a fitness club with sports equipment from Oakland Technical High School.

As the scandals mounted, attorney Dan Siegel was brought in as part of a team charged with reforming district operations, but the cronies on the school board, he says, fought him every step of the way. "There were employees in the janitors union who flatly refused to work, and they were protected from any kind of punishment by some of the school board members," he recalls. "And it was again in racial terms. If you fired this employee, it was because you were a racist, not because they refused to work."

According to Bruce Cain, the director of UC-Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, Oakland's patronage regime is hardly unique. Cronyism and political favors, he says, are the hallmarks of any machine that rises out of an impoverished community. Brahmin good-government activists have the luxury of promoting civic ethics because they've already built bourgeois lives for themselves; Buddy Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, R.I., used to call them members of the Lucky Sperm Club. Political machines built by the poor, meanwhile, are run not so much on idealism as on getting a piece of the material action.

"The history of political machines for poor and minorities is that they don't just rely on ideological incentives," Cain says. "What they reveal are the material benefits of politics: What's the bottom line? Are they going to get that community center? Better roads? Are their cousins going to get a better job? It's the material aspect of politics, whether you go back to Tammany Hall or more contemporary machines."

As a member of the state Assembly, Elihu Harris, an African-American, and Oakland's mayor from 1990 to 1998, helped lead the charge to root out district corruption. But he has a certain sympathy for his opponents' point of view. After all, the white establishments they displaced set the gold standard for corruption. The Knowland family, which owned the Oakland Tribune and dominated the city's establishment until the late '60s, handpicked candidates for political office, conducted the City Council's business over dinner at waterfront restaurants, and dispensed favors and patronage like candy. Many black leaders felt that good-government activists discovered ethics just in time to spoil their turn to feed from the trough.

"There had always been a system of favoritism based on who you knew," Harris says. "That's not abnormal. But the difference was, Why are they trying to change the rules now that we're in charge? Principals are always hired based on who they knew. But suddenly everyone noticed what the black folks were doing -- the same thing white folks had been doing."

This resentment underlies what may be the greatest scandal in contemporary urban politics: the slow decay of the Los Angeles Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Opened in 1972 as a response to the Watts riots seven years earlier, the hospital became a powerful symbol of community pride; a majority of its staff has always been African-American. But for 30 years, as the Los Angeles Times has reported, a culture of mismanagement has allowed staff to skip work, falsify time cards, kill patients with neglect, and even get into fistfights over patients on the operating table. Between 1999 and 2003, King/Drew paid out a remarkable $20.1 million in malpractice settlements.

In 2003, a clerk at the hospital pharmacy was arrested for stealing $150,000 in drugs, which he sold from his garage; the pharmacy director didn't know the drugs were missing until three months after the clerk was sentenced. One nurse used to have a janitor's aide mix intravenous medications for trauma patients. The chief of neurosciences earned more than $1 million in 2002-03 while performing 15 surgeries over the course of four years; hospital staff sold pirated DVDs in the hallways.

But whenever the county health department suggests the kind of drastic reform needed to turn the institution around, an army of community activists rally behind claims that a racist conspiracy is out to destroy a symbol of black pride. For the last year, their undisputed leader has been Rep. Maxine Waters, the exemplar of urban machine politics and racially charged rhetoric.

Waters is perhaps best known for leading the calls to investigate the CIA's supposed conspiracy to smuggle crack into black neighborhoods in the 1980s. But that kind of rhetoric was much less likely to resonate with Latinos, her fastest-growing constituency.

By 2000, the proportion of Latinos living in Waters' district had risen to 50 percent, far outstripping the black percentage of 36 percent. Unless the ethnic composition of her district somehow changed, a new generation of Latino leaders could someday challenge Waters for her congressional seat (and, if history is any guide, fall into the trap of patronage politics themselves). But that was before incumbents from both parties sat down to redraw the district lines. By the time they were finished, the Latino percentage in Waters' Los Angeles district had dropped to 43 percent, while the black population remained unchanged.

In another historically black district in Los Angeles, that of Juanita Millender-McDonald, Democrats reduced the Latino presence from 53 percent to 38 percent. According to Douglas Johnson, the author of a recent report on California gerrymandering for Claremont McKenna University, the results were hardly an accident. "In each case, they were looking to reduce the rapidly growing Latino population in their districts, presumably to avoid the threat of a primary challenge," he says.

Waters did not respond to requests for comment. But she was brutally frank in an interview on redistricting in the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "It is a foregone conclusion that the African-American seats are going to be retained," she said.

Not all black urban enclaves have passed through a phase of cronyism and incompetence. Under the leadership of mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, the city of Atlanta managed not only to spread jobs and contracts to African-Americans, but also to rebuild an urban bourgeoisie at a time when white residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Massive airport and transportation projects in the '80s both enhanced Atlanta's economic potential and gave black residents a share of the contracts, offering a chance for prosperity for everyone. While other black cities were rotting from crack and the flight of manufacturing industries, Atlanta emerged as the center of African-American middle-class life.

Today, there's no guarantee that the rise of a black suburban middle class will stem the destructive patterns of gerrymandering. California voters recently rejected an initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. But it may well lead to better political leaders. As the black middle class grows in suburbs along the state's urban fringes, leaders will emerge that must play coalition politics with white and Latino constituents.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, the black population of the suburb Tracy grew from 855 in 1990 to 3,117 in 2000, and Antioch's black population rose from 1,626 to 8,824 during the same period. Meanwhile, Oakland's black population dropped from 163,000 in 1990 to 115,000 in 2004. "I went to an In-N-Out Burger in Tracy, and found that there were more blacks there than in Oakland," marvels Elihu Harris.

One new black leader is Federal Glover, a district supervisor in several Northern California suburbs. Although Glover has a small African-American base, he ran not as a black candidate but as a business manager with 23 years of experience at Dow Chemical. He conducts the mundane business of Contra Costa County -- traffic, growth, city planning -- with a burgher's civic-mindedness, because he can't rely on a captive electorate to stay in office regardless of his record. "My political base has grown from the diversity of the community, not just my identification as an African-American," Glover says. "People are really issue driven, and they're looking for leaders who work toward the betterment of their quality of life."

Back in Oakland, African-American residents long ago began to abandon race politics in favor of other values. In part, this is due in part to the slow emigration of black residents. According to the Census Bureau, 32 percent of the city now identifies as white, while 31 percent identifies as black. In fact, for the first time since the Second World War, African-Americans no longer constitute a plurality in Oakland. Aside from state Assembly candidate Sandré Swanson, no African-American leader has emerged with any chance of running the city or aspiring to higher office.

But the shift in Oakland's calculus of power is due also to the sense among black voters, who had lived through a decade of black leadership, that competence matters at least as much as ethnic representation. The trend began in 1989, when Harris ran for mayor on a reform slate and defeated three-term incumbent Lionel Wilson.

In 1998, Jerry Brown became mayor with a substantial majority; one of his first acts was to force the resignation of Police Chief Joe Samuels, a veteran of the city's racial patronage system. White progressive City Councilmember Nancy Nadel has represented the overwhelmingly black neighborhoods of West Oakland for years; the only time an opponent seriously challenged her was in 2000, and his campaign collapsed in disarray after he began publicly denouncing her as "that white woman." The old guard was driven off the school board years ago, and while a different species of machine politics continues to plague Oakland, its polestars are money and power, not race.

In fact, Barbara Lee, who replaced Dellums as Oakland's congressional representative in 1998, thinks that the very middle-class values growing among California's black professionals may be critical to a Democratic resurgence in 2006. All the worst qualities of the old black urban machines -- cronyism, incompetence, gerrymandering -- are the hallmarks of George W. Bush's presidency and his supporters in the House of Representatives.

Just as a black middle class is turning its back on such politics locally, so the American middle class is wondering how long the country can tolerate such ineptitude, arrogance and fiscal irresponsibility. If leaders like Lee can link middle-class desires for good government with the basic aspirations of the urban poor, the great gulf between Reagan Democrats and the identity politics of the civil rights era may finally be resolved.

"The shock and outrage at what we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was widely felt, and is strong evidence that people believe that we all have a stake in the kind of society we live in," Lee told Salon. "Coalition politics is about expanding opportunity, fostering prosperity, and valuing diversity. And that is a message that the majority of Americans believe in."

Such analysis is exactly why so many Democratic leaders have pinned their hopes for resurgence on Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. In the last two years, the senator has emerged from the South Side of Chicago as an old-fashioned Truman Democrat, a foreign-policy hawk whose liberal domestic politics are focused on protecting and rebuilding the middle class. When he speaks of his vision for America, he doesn't dwell on the country's history of racism or exploitation, and he doesn't flog his personal journey as an African-American. Instead, he speaks of possibility and American exceptionalism.

Standing at the crossroads of history, Obama said during his stirring speech at last year's Democratic National Convention, "I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair."

As the Republican leadership mortgages the country's future on debt, cronyism and religious divisiveness, Barack Obama may well become America's first truly national black politician.

By Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson is a staff writer at the East Bay Express, where he writes "City of Warts," a news and public affairs column.

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