Change, a concept on which President Obama ran — and won — in the 2008 election, is the one constant we can rely on in the new political era. Just two years ago, the president won a historic victory that swept Obama into the White House. Two years later, he and Democrats on Capitol Hill are contemplating the political road back — in the midst of a crock pot economic recovery and an angry electorate that is concerned about unemployment, increased government spending and the reality of the American dream for our children.
While the political winds for Democrats have been brutal, results for African-American politicians have been a mixed bag — a sign that the community continues to make progress towards political parity in America. As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, the electoral landscape for African-Americans has changed dramatically.
Several touted as up-and-comers less than two years ago have fallen to defeat, while other recent unknowns have found the limelight. Overall, regional political context, including the state of the economy — not race or ethnicity — appeared to have the greatest impact on campaigns. That is real progress.
Several political stars continued to burn bright in 2010. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, after raising taxes and suffering declining poll numbers during his first term, defeated a strong challenger by six points on Election Day. Many believed that Patrick’s career as governor was finished after the surprise victory of Senator Scott Brown to fill the seat once occupied by Senator Ted Kennedy, but that race apparently served as a wakeup call for Patrick’s team, led by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. No doubt lessons from Patrick’s turnaround will be studied and embraced by the White House as they shake off the post-election blues. The youthful looking Patrick, 54, is sure to be a candidate for president in 2016.
Another bright light in statewide politics is incoming California attorney general Kamala Harris, the two-term San Francisco district attorney who rode her smart-on-crime philosophy to Sacramento. Harris, 46, is the first black woman nominated by a major party for any office in the history of California. Reform has been her watchword, as she developed innovative tactics to reduce recidivism among first time offenders of non-violent crimes. Political observers have long seen her as a rising star plotting a map to the governor’s mansion and possibly the White House.
Of course the big news this cycle has been the turnover in the House of Representatives; however, African-Americans have seen great — and unexpected — gains in the chamber. Two Democratic African-American women and two Republican African-American men are on the short list of “ones to watch” in the 112th Congress.
In one of the most diverse districts in the nation held by an African-American, Karen Bass, the tough talking, no-nonsense former speaker of the California Assembly takes the seat occupied by retiring Representative Diane Watson. Bass’s skills as a legislator and bridge builder position her as a tremendous asset to House Democrats in what is sure to be a tough legislative environment.
Another newcomer to Washington is Terri Sewell, who won the seat held by outgoing congressman Artur Davis of Alabama. Sewell, a newcomer to politics, is the first African American woman elected to federal office from Alabama. With an educational background comparable to Davis and Obama (Princeton, Harvard Law), and an extensive Rolodex, the Selma, Alabama native is expected to make rapid strides in the nation’s Capitol on behalf of one of the country’s poorest congressional districts.
As a sign of the dramatic political winds this year, two years ago no one would have predicted the rise of the Tea Party, let alone the elevation of two African American Republicans from deep Southern states to Congress.
Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida will both represent majority white districts when they arrive in Washington on January 5th. Both come to Washington supporting reduced spending and smaller government. As we wait to see if either will actually join the left leaning Congressional Black Caucus, West has already given us fireworks with the selection – and relief – of his radio talk show chief of staff.
At the local level, Newark mayor Cory Booker continues to shine as a national thought leader and administrative trail blazer. He won re-election this year easily after two previously tough campaigns against his immediate predecessor, Sharpe James. Booker’s landmark accomplishment during his first term was dramatically reducing the city’s crime rate. His focus now turns to education: increasing graduation rates and reducing dropout rates in the city’s schools.
Booker, who has more than one million followers on Facebook, recently accepted a $100 million donation to the Newark school district from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Booker’s star power and ability to attract that type of support keeps him on the short list for governor of New Jersey and beyond.
While there are bright lights, there have been dim moments this year as well. Adrian Fenty, the young mayor of Washington, DC, was brought down by voters frustrated with his tough policies and tougher attitude. Artur Davis and Kendrick Meek, both considered rising stars in the House Democratic Caucus, saw tough defeats in statewide races for Alabama governor and Florida U.S. Senator respectively. Today, the House Ethics Panel found New York Congressman Charlie Rangel guilty on 11 counts, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters will have her review by the panel soon.
These 2010 elections have truly shaken up the political establishment, but there are some bright lights for African-Americans in Washington and across the nation. Political watchers are already turning to 2012 and questioning whether President Obama can turn it around. With the support of African-American voters, I believe that he can — but the tough work starts now.
Corey Ealons is senior vice president of VOX Global Communications and former director of African American Media for the White House under President Barack Obama.