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Blacks see a shrinking political role in California

Times Political Writer

In the heart of downtown, at the corner of 14th and Clay, stands the Elihu Harris state office building, a high-rise monument to the city's former Sacramento representative and mayor.

On the 22nd floor of the stone-and-glass tower sits the office of Wilma Chan, the freshman lawmaker who helped thwart Harris' bid to reclaim his old Assembly seat in November.

Harris is Black, a symbol of California's political past. Chan is Asian American and an embodiment of California's future--a political future that looks increasing bleak for African Americans.

At a time when Latino power is exploding across the state and a swelling Asian population is gaining clout, Blacks are losing political ground from Sacramento to South-Central Los Angeles.

Almost 20 years ago, California nearly elected the nation's first Black governor. Today, there are just four Blacks serving in the 80-member Assembly--the same as the number of Latino Republicans. There are only two African Americans in the 40-member state Senate. Not a single Black legislator serves a district north of Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard.

Few are ready to declare Blacks endangered as a political species in California--not when African Americans remain so vital to the Democratic Party.

But many are alarmed by the dramatic erosion of Black clout. They fear that the political system will grow less responsive to the state's roughly 2.5 million African Americans and fret that African Americans, in turn, will grow increasingly alienated from the political system.

"You have a population that feels very disenfranchised to begin with," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist. "And this is a trend that's getting worse, not better."

Much of the decline stems from sweeping shifts in population. Here, truly, demography is political destiny.

California's Black population stayed about the same over the past decade, the last census showed, while the number of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders grew more than 35%. Blacks are now just about 6% of California's population, while Latinos make up roughly a third and Asian Americans about 12%.

At the same time, voter participation has surged among Latinos and Asian Americans, as more residents become U.S. citizens and get politically involved. In contrast, Black registration and voting rates fell during the 1990s.

The results are plain to see. In 1984, there were 460 Latino officeholders statewide, a figure that grew to 789 in 1998, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The ranks of Asian American officials grew from 106 in 1980 to 503 in 1998. But the number of African American officeholders barely budged, inching from 233 to 240 in the same 18-year span.

That stagnation is particularly striking given the national trend: Across the country, the number of Black elected officials rose 76% between 1980 and 1998, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

And the pattern in California is likely to continue, as aging whites and African Americans are supplanted by growing numbers of young Latinos and Asians.

Term Limits, Bias Cited as Factors

Important as they are, however, demographic shifts are just part of the explanation for the dramatic decline in Black power. Term limits have forced African Americans from jobs they might have held for life. At the same time, Black leaders have failed to groom many candidates able to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, the way Latino lawmakers have.

Racial prejudice also plays a part, as does the more conservative tenor of the times.

"When the '90s came along, you had the L.A. riots and a backlash against the entitlement programs associated with Black mayors," said Steve Erie of UC San Diego, who cited Chicago, New York, Oakland and Los Angeles among the major cities that elected whites to replace African American mayors.

To some, the declining ranks of Black officialdom are no great cause for concern. They say the trend has resulted from political maturation and greater sophistication on the part of African American voters.

"The symbolic benefit of [electing] 'one of your own' is kind of marginal now," said Robert Smith, a San Francisco State expert on Black politics. "You're replacing Black liberals with Latino liberals, so the policy outcome is not major."

But others suggest that something is inevitably lost any time a group of people is represented by someone lacking the same background and sensibilities.

"It means leaving up to others the decisions that affect you," said Keith Carson, an African American in his third term on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. "It means letting others speak on your behalf."

If there was ever a heyday for Black political power in California, it began in the late 1960s. Over a 10-year period, Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond installed their first Black mayors.

In 1970, Wilson Riles became the first African American elected to statewide office, on the way to serving 12 years as superintendent of public schools. In 1974, Mervyn Dymally was elected to the first of two terms as lieutenant governor. Willie Brown became Assembly speaker in 1980, a job he held a record 14 1/2 years.

But looking back, the 1982 governor's race may offer the best illustration of the heights and limits of Black aspirations.

Republican state Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian faced Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who sought to become the nation's first elected African American governor.

Bradley was a strong favorite and consistently led in opinion polls. But in the end the Democrat lost--by just 90,000 votes out of 8 million cast.

Bradley's defeat is generally attributed to the conservative turnout spawned by a handgun control initiative that he backed and Deukmejian opposed. But race was a distinct undercurrent, and Bradley's approach illustrates the challenge many Black candidates face trying to hold onto their base while reaching out to a broader, predominantly white electorate.

"He soft-pedaled race issues. He soft-pedaled himself as a Black candidate," said Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and author of a new book on California's racial politics. "In trying to run a colorblind race, he really in a sense alienated some African American voters who didn't go to the polls."

In fact, surveys found no measurable increase in Black turnout for that election, despite Bradley's historic candidacy.

He ran again in 1986, but lost in a landslide to Deukmejian. Since then, no Black California politician has come close to winning statewide office.

"Clearly, we've seen the [political] high-water mark for Blacks," said Erie, director of the urban studies and planning program at UC San Diego.

Black Political Strength Rises Elsewhere in U.S.

As much as demography has diminished African American power in California, it has helped boost Black strength elsewhere in the country. For instance, Blacks make up about 36% of the population in Mississippi, 33% in Louisiana and 30% in South Carolina. Latinos and Asians make up less than 5% of the population in those states.

Those numbers are important, because Blacks have achieved political power--nationally as well as in California--chiefly by winning support from other Black people.

There are notable exceptions. L. Douglas Wilder was elected Virginia governor, shattering the race barrier that Bradley never overcame. Illinois voters sent Carol Moseley Braun to the U.S. Senate. Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis--cities with small Black populations--have all elected African American mayors.

But the strength of numbers has been instrumental to Black success, particularly in the South, home to the nation's biggest Black population and the greatest number of African American officeholders. Indeed, of about 9,000 Black elected officials nationwide most represent majority Black communities.

With a continued influx of African Americans, Blacks can count on gaining even more strength in the South in the years to come. But in California, simply preserving the status quo will be difficult.

Population is just part of the reason. Even as Latinos and Asian Americans have increased their numbers, African Americans have left traditional strongholds in and around Los Angeles, Oakland and Berkeley. Some have been priced out; others have prospered and moved to outlying suburbs. Regardless, the effect has been to further dilute the concentration of Black population and, thus, voting strength.

In Sacramento, Democratic lawmakers in charge of redrawing the state's political lines will strive to protect California's few remaining African American congressional and legislative incumbents.

But their hold on power will probably be more tenuous, because most of the incumbents' districts have lost significant Black population over the last decade. Already, tensions have emerged as Latinos--now the largest ethnic group in the city and county of Los Angeles--have clashed with Blacks over power and perks in Compton, Inglewood and Watts.

Latinos Cultivate Their Own Candidates

Latinos have taken a far different approach from Blacks to building and maintaining political power. Leaders such as state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) spent years methodically cultivating candidates and positioning them to run outside traditional Latino strongholds.

Thanks to openings created by term limits, Latinos now hold 20 seats in the Assembly, compared with just four in 1991; less than a handful represent majority Latino districts.

If Blacks hope to stem their losses, they will have to emulate that cross-over success. "They have to take a page out of Polanco's playbook," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, a nonpartisan guide to California politics.

But Latino candidates may enjoy an advantage when it comes to winning support from whites, who are still the majority of California voters. For one thing, Latino culture is intrinsic to California's heritage.

"We have Cinco de Mayo grocery store decorations. I don't go into Safeway and see it decorated for Juneteenth," said Richie Ross, a Sacramento campaign strategist, referring to the summertime anti-slavery observance. "We eat at Chevy's, not Roscoe's Pancake House. So, culturally, we're more prepared to accept" Latino candidates.

Skin color may also play a part. A 1993 study in the American Journal of Political Science found that white voters tend to judge dark-skinned candidates more harshly than lighter-skinned candidates. The darker the skin color, the study determined, the more negative the response.

"African American candidates who seek national and statewide office or run in districts that are predominantly nonBlack are significantly constrained by their ethnicity," the study said. "For Black nominees to be successful, their campaigns must overcome the invidious obstacle of race."

Democratic Assemblyman Herb Wesson thinks he knows how.

He was elected in 1998 from a Los Angeles-area district drawn 10 years ago to favor an African American. Since then, the population has shifted so much that Blacks now make up only about a third of the population. But Wesson has run well, not just among Black and Latino voters in South-Central Los Angeles but also among whites in Culver City.

"I coached Pop Warner football there for 12 years," Wesson said. "My wife was active in the PTA. I coached Little League baseball. Those people know me as Herb Wesson, not 'Herb Wesson, the Black guy.'

"A person has to be attractive because of what they stand for, not for what they look like," concluded Wesson, who is busy campaigning in Sacramento to be the next Assembly speaker.

Up north, Shannon Reeves echoed the sentiment. He said too many Black candidates push a narrow agenda that limits their appeal.

"You've got to run on the environment, energy, water, agriculture," said Reeves, head of the Oakland chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and a rare Black Republican in a Democratic town. "After you get outside east Oakland and South-Central L.A., there's only so much racism you can talk about and get a mass response."

Perhaps a Glimpse of State's Future

Proudly diverse, Oakland may provide a glimpse of California's political future.

No one group constitutes an ethnic or racial majority. Coalition politics have long been the norm; former Rep. Ron Dellums and ex-Assemblywoman March Fong Eu broke into the all-white establishment decades ago.

"The race has already been run with someone as 'the first' this or that," said campaign consultant Larry Tramutola. "The average voter could give a lick. The average voter wants someone who'll do something."

When Wilma Chan ran for the Assembly, she was familiar to voters as a county supervisor and champion of child care and health issues.

Elihu Harris was familiar as well. He had less than stellar ratings after 12 years in the Assembly and eight as mayor. When Harris tried to reclaim his old Sacramento seat, he lost a fluky 1999 special election to the Green Party's Audie Bock. A year later, Harris backed down rather than face an uphill primary against Chan, a fellow Democrat.

For nearly 50 years, Harris' old seat had been held by African Americans. But that only seemed to matter to "political insiders," Chan said.

Now settled into office after ousting Bock in November, Chan considers herself a role model for Asian Americans. So she understands the concern some Blacks feel as their political power ebbs.

"I don't think politics is totally race blind," she said. "You certainly want to have some representation." But at the same time, Chan said, her election from polyglot Oakland bodes well for an increasingly diverse California.

"It suggests to me that people will elect someone who they think can solve problems and speak to issues they care about," Chan said. "Increasingly, with the population changing, people are looking more at the ability of the person."

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