Black Leaders Set Records in State Legislatures

Wendy Koch, USA Today, March 5, 2009

President Obama is not the only black leader making history. As of last month, a record five African Americans lead state legislative bodies, and the number of black state lawmakers has reached record levels.

Those leaders are part of a growing movement of African Americans serving in state legislatures, often steppingstones to higher office. The number of black state legislators has risen from 401 in 1986 to a record 628, accounting for 9% of state lawmakers, says Morgan Cullen of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Obama is part of a breakthrough generation that benefited from the gains made by civil rights leaders, says Gwen Ifill, host of PBS’ Washington Week and author of The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. “They’re not race-driven” and seek support from all voters, she says.

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Obama’s campaign did not prompt more blacks to seek federal office, says David Bositis, political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a private research group. He says the number running for Congress, 56, was lower than in 2004 or 2000 because of a drop in black Republican candidates.

In California, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass is the first black woman to lead any legislature. In Colorado, for the first time in U.S. history, black men, Terrance Carroll and Peter Groff, preside over the House and Senate.

In January, Malcolm Smith became Senate majority leader in New York. In February, Steven Horsford took the same post in Nevada. Both are the first African Americans to lead their legislatures.

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Voter attitudes toward race are changing dramatically, says Christopher Mooney, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

He says black officials can not only provide diversity of viewpoints but also tighten African Americans’ connection to government. He says, “Voters enjoy seeing people like themselves in office.”

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