With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the United States Senate is now without a Black member among its ranks. Despite the success Blacks have had getting elected as mayors, members of state legislatures, and to the House of Representatives, the Senate remains a body where Black Americans access is limited. Since the election of Massachusetts’ Edward Brooke in 1966, at best there has been one Black United States Senator over the course of a Congressional session. Now, with the Senate vacancy in Illinois there is a strong possibility that Blacks will again be shut out of the upper house of Congress.
It is why the New York senate vacancy, caused by Hillary Clinton’s appointment as Secretary of State, is intriguing. The interest of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, has ruffled feathers by those who believe she has not “paid her dues” to be considered and lacks the credentials to serve. I disagree with both arguments. There are plenty of examples of individuals who have gone to the head of the line without winding their way upward through lower elected offices and are now serving in the Senate. Likewise, Ms. Kennedy is obviously intelligent and capable of holding her own as a United States Senator. Moreover, no one can deny the strong sentimental pull of her candidacy given many of our memories of the tragedy in Dallas that left her fatherless, and the nation in mourning, and the tragic loss of her uncle, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy; who met the same fate as her father.
What concerns me more is that in the case of the New York vacancy little has been said about the opportunity to increase or hold steady the number of Blacks in the Senate. The conventional wisdom is that a Black governor, David Paterson, can’t appoint a Black to the Senate particularly when a Black also is poised to become the state Senate Majority Leader. But why not? For decades white elected officials have held all of the top offices in the vertical chain of government – Senate, Governor and state Attorney General – and there were never any qualms about the racial composition of the offices or the fact that in some instances whites had appointed other whites. Now that there is a Black governor, and remarkably we have two serving at one time albeit by sheer happenstance, the “rules of the game” have been tossed aside. Governor Paterson is now being subtly reminded that he “can’t go Black” for fear of offending white voters, particularly those in upstate New York.
So, even though in a state that has long-serving Black American members of Congress and the state legislature, and prominent Blacks in business, law, medicine, academia and the not-for-profit sector who could serve the state well in the Senate and bring a new perspective to issues, these individuals are summarily out of the running because of the not-too-invisible barrier of race. The excuse that is often put forth is that the candidate must be able to raise money and appeal to voters upstate. If the state Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would stand behind a Black statewide candidate, those issues would be moot. However, if the candidate is treated in the manner that Carl McCall was during his run several years ago, when then DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe all but doomed his candidacy by killing fundraising weeks prior to the election, the individual is certain to lose.
The drama in Illinois also does not help the effort to add a Black Senator to the ranks. With Governor Rod Blagojevich paralyzed by a federal criminal complaint and the appeal of his appointment power tainted by scandal, the Illinois Senate vacancy may go unresolved for some time until the internal politics of the state is settled. To make matters worse, the strange case of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., and how he has been dragged into the Blagojevich affair, and new revelations that he has been a government informant prior to the current scandal, has injured a once potential candidate and thrown open the door to the possibility that Obama’s replacement will not be a Black American.
With all the excitement about the election of Barack Obama we would be wise to remember that we still have some ways to go to make Congress and state houses across the country reflective of the nation’s demographics. It becomes even more difficult to make these institutions inclusive when Blacks appear all but disqualified from consideration for opportunities such as the Senate vacancies in Illinois and New York. If we truly are reaching that post-racial nirvana that many claim with the election of Barack Obama, then, in the case of the New York seat, the appointment of a Black should hardly cause a ripple but unfortunately would likely trigger a tsunami of naysayers.