Frank Lautenberg’s retirement announcement was a big Valentine’s Day bouquet for Cory Booker, who had already been coveting the octogenarian’s Senate seat. The Newark mayor now has a clear path to the 2014 Democratic nomination, and decent odds of becoming the first black senator from New Jersey. That would indeed be historic. Care to guess how many blacks have ever been elected to the Senate?
Several thousand lawmakers chosen by popular vote have served in the upper chamber since the 17th constitutional amendment – mandating the direct election of senators – became the law of the land 100 years ago. Yet only three of those lawmakers have been black. Think about that. That has to be one of America’s most sobering factoids.
Booker would join an exclusive club comprised of only three members in Senate history: Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke, and Illinois Democrats Carol Mosely Braun and Barack Obama. It does them no disservice to suggest that their club by no means deserves to be so exclusive.
Granted, two blacks are currently seated in the Senate – that would be Mo Cowan of Massachusetts and Tim Scott of South Carolina – but both guys are appointees, tapped by their respective governors to fill vacancies. Still, their dual presence is noteworthy, because this is the first time in history that the Senate chamber has hosted two blacks at the same time.
Think about that one, too. If the Senate were truly a mirror of America, 13 blacks would be serving right now in the Senate. Yet there are only two, the highest number in history, and neither was elected to serve.
I bring all this up to make a point about governance. Suffice it to say that the Cave of Winds would benefit from having a far broader range of life experiences. A Senate that looks more like America might be more willing to broaden the range of issues it takes on. Maybe it would talk more about poverty and inequality, for instance. Maybe, at minimum, it would benefit from a broader range of opinions on the issues it already takes on. Heck, anything that would breach its dysfunctional insularity would be a blessing.
So why have so few blacks ever been elected? If Cory Booker pulls it off next year, why would he a rartity?
I remember broaching this issue 10 years ago, when the black senatorial contingent was zero. Ron Walters, a black political analyst and ex-aide to Jesse Jackson Sr., nailed it in his response: “Blacks face a tremendous uphill battle raising money for a statewide race. They can’t pick up the phone and make that $100,000 call, because the (prospective donor) on the other end wants someone who is instantly credible as a ‘winner.’ And if the donors don’t think you can win over white voters, them there is pressure on you to step aside for the white candidates who they think can win over black voters.”
Blacks in the House of Representatives would seem to be ideal candidates for the Senate; that’s how it works for white congressmen, who successfully raise money for statewide races by leveraging their House careers. But it doesn’t work that way for black congressmen. In part because of gerrymandering, most of them represent heavily minority districts. Hence the Catch-22: Because their districts are so minority-heavy, their appeal seems limited to minority voters alone. Donors therefore conclude that black congressmen won’t be able to connect statewide with white voters – or to defeat a competitive Republican. Because, in the safe House districts, black congressmen have never faced a competitive Republican.
And without the money to run a statewide race – tens of millions, at minimum – there’s no point in even trying. As political jokesters used to say, back in the 19th century, “It is harder for a poor man to enter the United States Senate, than for a rich man to enter Heaven.”
Cory Booker may have sufficient racial crossover appeal. He can’t win a Senate race without it – as Democratic congressman Harold Ford discovered in Tennessee six years ago; he seemed on the verge of victory until the Republicans unleashed one of their characteristic TV ads, featuring a blonde white woman who cooed on camera (“Harold, call me!”) and thus reminded swing voters that the unmarried Ford was eligible for interracial dates.
The South has never elected a black senator (good luck next year, Tim Scott), but given the wariness of the donor-political establishment, a successful ascent in blue-state New Jersey would be a miracle all its own. The fight for a racially diverse Senate, for a mirror of America, will have to be waged one election at a time.
Sewage everywhere, hour after hour of interminable drift, hour after hour of chronic dysfunction…but enough about the Republican filibuster of Chuck Hagel.
There is much to be said, but I prefer to simply quote my own tweet as free-form poetic verse.
3 wks ago:
Senate Dems cave on reforms to end filibuster abuse.
Senate GOPers abuse filibuster to block Hagel.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1