Ark. Blacks Can’t Break State, Congress Barrier

Andrew Demillo, AP, November 11, 2008

Arkansas remains the only state from the former Confederacy not to elect an African-American to Congress or any statewide office since Reconstruction—and last week it soundly rejected the man set to become the nation’s first black president.

Barack Obama lost by 20 percentage points, even though fellow Democrats control all of Arkansas’ statewide offices, both chambers of the Legislature and three of its four congressional districts.

Many blacks say race is the reason, and consider the poor showing to be another frustrating chapter in Arkansas’ long and tortured civil-rights history.

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Exit polls conducted with Arkansas voters last week showed that 68 percent of white voters went for Republican John McCain, with 30 percent voting for Obama. In 2004, President Bush carried 63 percent of the white vote, compared to 36 percent for Democrat John Kerry. Among white women in 2004, 60 percent voted for Bush; this year 68 percent went for McCain.

Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are the only states where President-elect Obama fared worse among white voters than Kerry did in his 2004 loss.

“It says to me that race is still a predominant issue in those states and that it was race that was the explanation” for Obama’s loss in those states, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

One reason no blacks have been elected to Congress in Arkansas is demographics: Unlike many Southern states, it has no predominantly black congressional districts. In a state of less than 3 million people, about 16 percent of them black, it would be difficult to draw up such a district.

For statewide offices, meanwhile, it took until 2002 for Democrats to even nominate a black candidate. Ron Sheffield, a lawyer in his first political run, lost in lieutenant governor’s race that year to billionaire GOP incumbent Win Rockefeller.

Sheffield said he wanted to show other minority candidates what was possible.

“Why run for a legislative seat that is in a district that is 80 percent minority? OK, you know a minority is going to be elected in a district that’s predominantly minority, but should a political candidate only run in districts that are safe districts where they know they’re going to probably get elected?” Sheffield said. “I don’t understand that.”

In 2004 and 2006, Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen lost statewide bids in nonpartisan state Supreme Court races while simultaneously fighting a disciplinary panel over the rights of judges to speak out on political issues.

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Democrats also say they think the state’s 2010 elections will offer a chance for them to shine, with at least one black state senator eyeing a race for secretary of state.

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Black leaders in the state say both parties need to do a better job of recruiting black candidates who can run for higher office and win. If not, the state could suffer economically as much as politically, they say.

“That’s why we’re having a migration out of Arkansas of talented young black professionals,” Griffen said. “They don’t see an opportunity for real long-term progress in public policy involvement if they stay here in this state.”

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