Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian M. Fenty are sometimes mistaken for each other: Both of them have similarly shaven bald heads and are grouped among the new breed of black political leadership. Unlike their predecessors, who rode a wave out of the civil rights movement and into mayoralties of major cities, Fenty and Booker have the potential to exceed the old paradigm of race-based politics in this country.
But first they’ll have to win over their toughest critics: black voters.
In 2006 Fenty swept every precinct in the District in the Democratic primary — an unprecedented victory in which both whites and blacks shared a favorable view of him. Four years later, Fenty is struggling to hold on to his seat in today’s hotly contested primary election. (In heavily Democratic D.C., the primaries typically decide the mayoral race.) Fenty is trailing 67-year-old Vincent C. Gray, who has tapped into black discontent despite Fenty’s spending a record $5 million on his campaign. A Washington Post poll showed 64 percent of white Democrats favored Fenty, while 64 percent of black Democrats said they would vote for Gray. Only 19 percent of black voters said that they would vote for Fenty.
Booker has also struggled with black voters. In May he was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote — down from his 72 percent landslide in 2006 — despite having spent $5.5 million, more than all the other candidates in the race. In addition, Booker’s own polls show him struggling with black voters. A 2008 internal poll conducted by Obama pollster Joel Benenson found that only 69 percent of blacks agreed with the statement that Booker was bringing progress to Newark, compared with 85 percent of whites and Latinos. Forty-four percent of black single mothers, who make up at least 8 percent of the city’s electorate, felt Booker was taking the city in the wrong direction.
Booker’s aspirations for higher office could fail without big numbers in majority-black communities, including Newark. Fenty could lose today’s election — and indeed is predicted to lose, according to earlier polls.
The troubles of both mayors, who have held joint fundraisers to support each other, raise the question of whether black leaders can survive without black voters.
Booker’s and Fenty’s struggles to win over black voters resemble those of Artur Davis in Alabama. In seeking the nod for governor earlier this year, Davis eschewed the support of blacks and civil rights organizations, saying that times had changed. Davis lost.
Political observers say that some African-American leaders elected in the era of President Obama have misinterpreted his election and have miscalculated the black electorate. These recent elections demonstrate that certain African-American politicians may have abandoned too soon the social-justice platforms that defined the wave of mayors in the 1970s and 1980s.
“As is often the case, politicians … derive the wrong conclusion from the outcome,” says Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. “The appeal of the post-racial platform is mostly to non-blacks.”