Creating Black Political Dynasties

For second-generation black politicians, having a parent who held office is not always a plus.

Getty Images

If Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., wins the Senate race in Florida, where the two conservative candidates have dominated the headlines, it won't just be a historic win for a black politician. He would offer a glimpse of success for a group struggling for victories: the children of prominent black political figures.

At the same time that an African-American man who grew up outside of politics has ascended to the White House, several scions of black political families have seen their political fortunes decline. New York Gov. David Paterson, whose father Basil is a powerful figure in Harlem politics, abandoned a campaign to become only the third black elected governor of a state in the last century amid ethics scandals and one of the lowest approval ratings of any political figure in the country. Allegations of connections to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich doomed a potential U.S. Senate candidacy in Illinois for Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., even as no evidence of wrongdoing emerged. Harold Ford Jr. recently withdrew from a Senate campaign in New York after failing four years earlier in Tennessee, where both he and his father had been elected to Congress.

The numbers of failed candidacies by the children of black politicians is still small and far outnumbered by unsuccessful runs by children of white politicians, in part because of the paucity of African-American elected officials overall.

At the time, the political setbacks are significant. The generation of black politicians elected immediately after the civil rights movement is dominated by those who were elected mayor or to the House of Representatives in majority-black areas. Younger black politicians are now seeking to win the more powerful posts of governor or senator in which they would represent much larger and diverse groups of voters.

In theory, having a parent already in politics provides a political base that a younger politician can start with and could help them reach wider multi-racial constituencies. Ford had long been a star among young black politicians, Jackson was considering a Senate run in a state (Illinois) that elected the last two black senators (Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama), and Paterson inherited a gubernatorial seat in a state where Democrats have been ascendant in recent years.

No one factor ties these politicians' struggles together. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, represents part of the city as a congresswoman, resigned amid a flood of ethics charges centered on his extramarital affair with his chief of staff. Paterson's poll numbers were bad in part because he, like governors around the country, must deal with huge budget problems and because he got embroiled in a scandal about using his clout in a domestic dispute involving a close aide.

And for Ford, particularly in Tennessee, his problems resemble those of another black politician who is on the rise: Artur Davis of Alabama. Ford failed to win in a state that tends to vote Republican in federal elections, even as he sought to move to the political center after years of representing a majority-black district that was heavily Democratic. Davis, running for governor of Alabama, must woo conservative-leaning voters while at the same time capturing high numbers of black voters, some of whom were angry with his recent vote against the health reform bill that Democrats pushed through Congress.

In fact, coming from a political family has only obviously hurt the candidacy of Jackson, who decided against running for the Senate in 2004 (when he instead backed Obama) in part because of worries that voters would not separate him from the controversial political career of his father. While voters are currently in an anti-incumbent mood that could hurt the children of black politicians, Mignon Clyburn, whose father, James Clyburn, is House Majority Whip, was confirmed by the Senate to a seat on the Federal Communications Commission with little controversy.

Meek, who won the Miami-area congressional seat his mother retired from in 2003, is taking the outsider route in one respect. Florida law allows a candidate to either pay $10,000 or collect 112,000 signatures to get on the ballot, and Meek took the latter route in an attempt to demonstrate his broad appeal. He could also benefit from a divided GOP vote as Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to announce on Thursday an independent candidacy instead of facing off with Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio, who had surged well ahead of Crist in the GOP primary.

And if legacies hurt black politicians, that is unlikely to affect Meek. Carrie Meek, Kendrick's mother, is, for better and for worse, no Jesse Jackson Sr. in terms of fame. Polls in Florida suggest voters in the state will only know Kendrick Meek is the son of a political family if someone tells them: 73 percent of voters in the state don't know enough about him to rate him either favorably or unfavorably, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.