Obama’s Seat Race Could Cost Senate Some Diversity

Deanna Bellandi, AP, July 23, 2009

When Illinois chooses a new senator next year, voters will decide not only who wins an election but whether the overwhelmingly white U.S. Senate loses some of its diversity.

The seat up for grabs has produced three of the nation’s four black senators in modern history. It paved the way for Barack Obama to be America’s first black president. The Senate’s only black member–Roland Burris–currently holds it.

Without an incumbent or Democratic heir apparent, the race is wide open. So far, most of the declared candidates are white. That leaves open the possibility that the chamber could have no black members come 2011, even though efforts are under way to find a black candidate in Illinois.

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Among the blacks now running for Senate are Republican Ryan Frazier, a city council member in Aurora, Colo., and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, a Democrat. The race in Illinois is still unfolding, but so far, no major black candidate has emerged.

Burris announced earlier this month he won’t seek a full term because of fundraising problems stemming from his links to disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. {snip}

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At least one Chicago group is working to find such a candidate. Clergy Speaks Interdenominational, a coalition of about 200 churches, plans to identify potential candidates, said its president, the Rev. Albert D. Tyson III. They are still figuring out how that process will work.

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Chicago Urban League president Cheryle Jackson is the only black Democrat to announce an interest in running. But she has been largely silent about her plans in recent weeks. The political rookie would have to deal with her own ties to Blagojevich because she worked as his spokeswoman during his first term.

First-term Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias plans to seek the Democratic nomination, and Chicago businessman Christopher Kennedy, whose father was the late Robert F. Kennedy, could join the field.

A variety of reasons are keeping some of Illinois’ best-known black politicians out of the race.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., for instance, expressed interest after Obama’s election and later had discussions with Blagojevich about being appointed to the seat. Jackson has said he did nothing wrong, but his association with Blagojevich damaged his public image and a congressional ethics board was looking into the matter.

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At least two lesser-known black candidates are interested in running: the Rev. Anthony Williams possibly as an independent and entrepreneur Eric Wallace as a Republican.

But Republican party officials have rallied around U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a white, five-term congressman from Chicago’s north suburbs.

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America has had only six black senators, two during Reconstruction following the Civil War and four since the 1960s.

The first black person to hold the Illinois seat was Carol Moseley Braun, who won it in 1992 and lost it six years later to Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald didn’t seek re-election, and Obama captured the seat in 2004, trouncing another black candidate, conservative Republican Alan Keyes. Then came Burris.

Those three senators, particularly Obama, have given the seat special significance for some black voters and leaders. It represents both important progress toward political equality and the long road that still lies ahead–after all, it’s just one seat out of 100.

“If you ask anybody on the street ‘Should this be a black seat?’ they’ll tell you yes without even having to stop and think about it,” said Timuel Black, a retired college professor and Chicago activist.

However, black leaders are careful not to imply that a black candidate is more deserving of the seat.

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