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Senate likely to be less diverse after Nov. elections

Deanna Bellandi

CHICAGO — That historically all-white club known as the U.S. Senate is likely to lose what little diversity it has after November’s elections.

Two white men will be competing for President Barack Obama’s former seat in Illinois, now held by Roland Burris, the chamber’s lone African-American. Appointed by the scandal-tainted former governor, Burris won’t be seeking a full term.

In contests in Florida, Texas and North Carolina, black candidates face daunting challenges to joining the august body, from difficulty raising cash to lack of name recognition to formidable rivals.

Blacks comprise 12.2 percent of the nation’s population, but you wouldn’t know it in the 100-member Senate. Come next year, the total number could add up to zero.

“It certainly is not a desirable state of affairs,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Bositis noted that blacks don’t make up the majority population in any state and in states where there are large numbers of blacks, as in the South, there are racial divisions that make getting elected difficult.

Florida is more likely to produce the next Hispanic senator than it is the next black senator.

Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, is locked in a close race with Gov. Charlie Crist for the Republican Senate nomination and the chance to succeed GOP Sen. Mel Martinez, who left before his term ended. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was elected in 2006, is the Senate’s only Hispanic member and is one of only six Hispanics elected since the 1920s.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, one of 41 African Americans in the House, is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in Florida, but polls show him trailing both Rubio and Crist.

In Texas, Republican Michael Williams is looking at running for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat. Hutchison is challenging Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Williams is a commissioner on the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industries in the state.

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill attorney Kenneth Lewis, a former state fundraiser for Obama, is one of three leading Democrats seeking to challenge GOP Sen. Richard Burr. Another black Democrat, Nathaniel Cooper, has raised just $1,600 to compete in the May 4 Democratic primary.

In Georgia, former Rockdale County chief of staff R.J. Hadley, a first-time candidate, hopes to take on Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson but has not yet raised the minimum $5,000 filing fee.

Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt University political science and law professor, said that party leaders need to be committed to a diversified legislative body and that qualified black candidates with money must step up to try to get elected.

“One of the reasons why it’s difficult for minorities, especially blacks, to win statewide is the cost of campaigns,” she said. “It takes millions of dollars to run a Senate campaign.”

On Tuesday, neither of the two black challengers in the Illinois’ primary — Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson, a Democrat, and little-known former suburban Chicago alderman John Arrington, a Republican —  could compete against the better-funded and better-known candidates who captured the major party nominations.

Five-term Rep. Mark Kirk won the GOP nomination and Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias walked away with the Democratic nod. Both are white.

Illinois has a history of sending black senators to Washington, with three of the nation’s four black senators in modern times coming from the state.

The first black senator in the 20th century was Edward W. Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican who served from 1967 until 1979. The first to hold the Illinois seat was Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat who won it in 1992. She lost six years later to Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who is white and didn’t seek a second term. Obama captured the seat in 2004 by trouncing another black candidate, conservative Republican Alan Keyes. Obama relinquished the seat when he was elected president and it was filled by Burris.

Burris was appointed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich after Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly trying to sell Obama’s seat.

Obama’s former seat is now a prime takeover target for Republicans. The attention on it has intensified since the GOP’s upset win in Massachusetts last month claimed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat.

For some in Illinois, the bigger embarrassment would be for Obama’s old seat to fall to the GOP.

For his part, Kirk borrows a line from Massachusetts’s new U.S. senator: “I think that this seat is not owned by any one particular group or politician. It’s owned by the people of Illinois.”

Associated Press