Recently on a work trip, I drove through miles of Arkansas highway. After several minutes, I noticed how even in the biggest city, Little Rock, there were wide swaths of, well, nothing. "I'm amazed that a guy from here imagined himself as the president,” I said.
My business partner’s reply was profound: “If you can become a governor..."
He was right. America chooses its leader from our most exclusive clubs: governors and United States senators. To get there, one must win a statewide election, an elusive prize for African Americans. Six blacks have been elected to the U.S. Senate. Two blacks have been elected governor.
Black candidates have an extremely hard time winning statewide elections, presenting a formidable glass ceiling that exists equally in primary and general elections. Since we have a hard time competing statewide, we rarely enter the down-ballot statewide races that feed candidates to marquee Senate and gubernatorial races.
This is changing. 2018 has produced a surge in diverse candidates pursuing – and, in primary contests, winning – statewide elections.
Stacey Abrams, the hyper-qualified Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, can make history in November. Andrew Gillum, the progressive mayor of Tallahassee, Florida can do the same.
State Senators Aaron Ford in Nevada and Kwame Raoul of Illinois are looking strong as attorney general nominees; Raoul faces Republican Erika Harrold, who is also African-American, thus guaranteeing Illinois a black A.G.
Mike Espy will likely make it to Mississippi’s U.S. Senate runoff.
It is encouraging that the trend is not limited to states with concentrated minority populations. Deidre DeJear is Iowa’s Democratic secretary of state nominee, and Mandela Barnes – branding himself “The Other Mandela” – won Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor primary.
We should consider why black candidates haven’t succeeded statewide en masse. Money is an issue in two ways. Black folks generally don’t come from any. Therefore, black political aspirants don’t have the natural funding base of family, friends, and high-net-worth associates who provide the “seed round” and subsequent injections of capital to sustain a statewide campaign. Secondly, many African Americans who would be excellent candidates and officers are of the first or second generation of blacks who had expansive career opportunities. And remember, they don’t come from family money. So, when presented with the options of public service at a modest salary or a plethora of options in corporations or entrepreneurship, it’s not financially sensible to forego the chance to create generational wealth.
And while it is often implied in discussions about why blacks haven’t succeeded statewide, let’s remember plain racism. Black candidates face a challenge in appealing to white folks; i.e., “normalizing” their identities or creating common ground so an average white voter can say, “I’m comfortable allowing this person to lead. She shares my experiences and values.”
This is not only rural and suburban whites in general elections, who comprise the majority of statewide electorates yet have virtually no black neighbors or relationships with black people. This is an issue among all white voters, as evidenced by black candidates not succeeding or even running in primaries, where white Democratic voters reside in diverse markets.
African-American candidates are starting to break through for three major reasons.
In 2008, the country was in such shape that we gave the black dude a chance, because he couldn’t do much worse. That's happening now. The resistance is real and it presents as Americans being willing to consider those who are the opposite of what Trump represents.
Race is a part of that change case. This is why record numbers of women, minorities, LGBTQIA people, and non-Christians are running for all offices, and some are taking swings statewide. Given an abundance of candidates, inevitably a few will break through.
Second, in the African-American tradition of reverence to the ancestors, yesterday’s black statewide candidates paved the way for today’s. Representation matters, and dozens of black candidates, both viable and quixotic, normalized blackness on statewide ballots over decades, such that most voters now see black candidates as less anomalous.
Today’s contenders should thank Harvey Gantt of North Carolina (Senate ‘90 and ‘96), Missourians Allen Wheat and Robin Smith (Senate ‘94 and secretary of state ‘16), Ron Kirk of Texas (Senate ‘02), Thurbert Baker of Georgia (attorney general from 1997-2010), Bakari Sellers of South Carolina (lieutenant governor ‘14), and all the other intrepid souls – successful or not – who took the leap.
Finally, today’s black politicos have a greater chance being elected statewide because of shifting demographics within the Democratic primary electorate. Most black statewide candidates are Democrats. Blacks, women, young people and labor comprise the Democratic core. If Democrats field exciting candidates and sustain today’s energy, increased awareness and turnout in the “stay woke” era should bode well for blacks competing in future primaries. Once through a primary, candidates are subject to the political winds of the day, which in the right cycle, can favor the Democratic nominee.
I was once an elected official who calculated that statewide office was impossible. I didn’t come from money, had opportunities in the private sector, and couldn’t see my home state Missouri electing a black person statewide. At that time, Democrats remained committed to running center right, which is now fading in favor of expanding the progressive base.
So, while it wasn’t for me, I’m elated to see my friends Stacey, Andrew, and the other Mandela climbing the mountain, and I honor those who made their paths more conceivable. Most importantly, I’m excited about policies that an inclusive ranks of statewide leadership can create.
Don Calloway is CEO of Pine Street Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying and campaign consulting firm, and a frequent contributor on cable news.