Last week, former President Obama celebrated his 56th birthday. Six months ago, the first Black President handed the baton of governance to Donald Trump, representing a political and behavioral shift like no other. During his time in office, President Obama was a polarizing figure largely due race and place atop global politics. The end of the Obama Administration did not just signify a change in the country’s leadership but also created a void of Black Political Leadership in Washington and across the country.
In Washington, the House of Representatives remains strong with veteran members like John Conyers Jr. (MI), Maxine Waters (CA) & Jim Clyburn (SC) who have a collective 102 years of experience. Along with seasoned legislators, two Black women – Val Demings (FL) and Lisa Blunt Rochester (DE) – began their first terms. Black representation in the Senate however, gives of glimpses of the struggles Blacks have historically in becoming statewide officials. Since 1900, four of the eight Blacks to serve in the Senate were elected outright with the other half being appointed to fill vacated seats.
The current Senate composes just three Blacks, one Republican – Tim Scott (SC) – and two Democrats – Cory Booker (NJ) and Kamala Harris (CA). Booker and Harris have arguably the brightest futures in the party that include being viable Presidential candidates as soon as 2020. Entering the Senate by appointment in 2014, Booker has displayed his oratory skills as a way to generate enthusiasm. Yet, Booker’s potential future seems to fall as his counterparts from California’s seems to rise. Harris, a Howard Alum and former Attorney General of California has showed tremendous potential early in her first seven months in the Senate. She has been a sensible but nevertheless strong voice against the Trump Administration; while working towards legislation that attempts to extend legal protections to immigrants and minorities. Harris and Booker symbolize a strength in the often-maligned Democratic bench and they may not wait long to get in the game.
While promise rest in Washington officials like Harris and Booker, the local landscape is somber. Across the country Blacks have struggled to win down ballot races even geographically favorable areas. Washington grinds to a halt Governors and Mayors have assumed the responsibility of leadership. These state and local officials have great influence over the policies that impact Black communities from law enforcement to education.
State Attorney Generals have a great deal of power when it comes to the administration of criminal justice. Though the specific responsibilities vary by state, many have direct authority in prosecuting certain offenses. While the conversation of criminal justice often focuses on the school to prison pipeline and the disparities between crack and cocaine sentencing, other important conversations are left ignored. As MSNBC host Chris Hayes points out in his book A Colony in a Nation, local prosecutors, judges and Attorney General share equal responsibility for overcrowded prison system. Attorney Generals have the ability to pressure local prosecutors to end pursuing the maximum sentencing for petty crimes and possession a marijuana. Indiana’s Curtis Hill (R) is the lone Black State Attorney General in the country, while two territories also feature Black AG’s in Karl Racine (DC) and Claude Walker (VI).
A state Lt. Governors role is similar to that of the Vice President of the United States. There primary responsibility step in as Governor in the event of an absence, resignation or death and cast the deciding vote in legislative ties in the State Senate. While Lt. Gov’s lack great written power they hold the second highest office in the state which creates advantages to run for other positions. Lt. Governor elections vary greatly by state. States either require the Gubernatorial candidate to select there running mate or run in separate election. Today, Maryland’s Boyd Rutherford (R) and Kentucky’s Jenean Hampton (R) are the only Blacks to serve in the position.
As the city executive Mayors have control over a wide range of services such as education, economic development, public safety and health. Of the fifty largest cities in the country only six have Black mayors;
Sylvester Turner (Houston-D), Michael Hancock (Denver-D), Muriel Bowser (DC-D), Catherine Pugh (Baltimore-D) & Sly James (Kansas City-D) & Kasim Reed (Atlanta-D).
According to a Census report: The Black Population: 2010 of the ten largest cities with Black / African American populations, only three have Black mayors – Houston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In addition, of the cities with the greatest percentage of Black / African American residents four of the top ten- Memphis, New Orleans, Montgomery and Savannah – have white mayors.
In every state, the most power public official is without question the governor. They command National Guard’s, can veto legislation, appoint judges and pardon prisoners. Governors have tremendous power and are often considered potential Presidential candidates if they perform well. Today, not a single Governor is Black which may change soon as soon as next year.
Political engagement amongst Democrats has increased dramatically since the election of President Trump. This new interest along with Trump’s unpopularity may create a path for the Democrats to gain a majority in the House. The enthusiasm also extends farther than House Congressional districts and has enticed Black politicians locally. The 2018 election could feature as many as five Black gubernatorial candidates and one shoo-in for Lt. Gov – Justin Fairfax. While the candidacies of former Wichita, KS Mayor Carl Brewer and Prince Georges County, MD Executive Rashern Baker are fascinating. The other three individuals point to a possible broader change and hope for tomorrow.
In Massachusetts Charlie Baker, the states popular Governor is seeking re-election next year. Gov. Baker’s Democratic challenger will have a tough task in mobilizing the state’s Democratic base, while swinging independent voters that supported Baker in 2014. One of those candidates stepping up to the plate is Newton, MA mayor Setti Warren. Warren is the first popularity elected Mayor in the state and is likely to be the only minority to pursue the Governorship. At 47, the Naval veteran will look to his track record as Mayor to showcase his leadership and ability to bring simply results.
Even in the traditionally Republican south a local leader is ambitiously pursing her chance to lead. In Georgia, State House Minority Leaders Stacey Abrams is attempting to become the first Black female Governor in United States history. Abrams has served in the State House since 2007 and has been Minority leader for six years. The multi-talented Abrams has published eight books under the name Selena Montgomery; along with holding a Masters in Public Affairs and law degree from Yale. At 43, Abrams is widely viewed as a rising star in the Democratic Party and her candidacy may be the first step of something special.
In recent elections Florida has often found a way to make itself important. The large swing state has supported three Democrats and three Republicans for President since 1996. At the state level a Democrat has not won the Governorship since 1994 and Andrew Gillum looks to break the trend. At 23, Gillum became a City Commissioner and the youngest elected official in Tallahassee. After being Commissioner for ten years Gillum was elected Mayor of the state’s capitol city in 2014. At 38, Florida A&M graduate appears to be the front runner for the Democratic nomination heading for a showdown with former U.S House Member and state Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Putnam. Gillum is not just face but has a proven track record as mayor as well as progressive stances that could help in next November.
While many will focus on the Congressional elections, gridlock follow Congress regardless of who holds majorities in the House and Senate. The candidacies of Abrams, Gillum and Warren may be the unmentioned stories of 2018. If Democrats are truly invested in correcting the wrong of 2016, they will be a pivotal step in the right direction. Each brings a youthful demeanor but also an experience and genuineness that is badly need in our politics. Despite their bright future, opportunities come to those who take them. With President Trump in charge the future appears to be now with Abrams, Gillum and Warren proving to be the leaders of a new movement.