Last year three African Americans running statewide for offices in the same state were all elected, something that had never happened before in any state, even during Reconstruction. The African Americans are Democrats, and the state is one of those proudly, reliably liberal ones -- Massachusetts, perhaps, or California, right?
Wrong. The state is Texas, and all three winners are Republicans. Their successes suggest how Republicans might make modest progress with African American voters. Modest progress -- say, 15 percent rather than 8 percent of the African American vote -- could have large effects.
Two of the Texans, Wallace Jefferson and Dale Wainwright, were elected to the state Supreme Court, which has nine justices. The third is Michael Williams, who in 1998 became the state's first African American to hold a statewide executive position when he was appointed by Gov. George W. Bush to complete the term of a departed member of the Texas Railroad Commission. He was elected to the commission in 2000 and reelected last year.
The commission has precious little to do with railroads. It regulates the state's oil and gas industries. Which is to say, it matters. Williams was here recently on errands both energy-related and political, wearing a big bow tie and a bigger smile, anticipating those modest gains.
Being born in Midland, Tex., was a shrewd career move by Williams, who returned there after attending the University of Southern California and staying there for law school. In 1978, at age 25, he ran for county attorney in Midland and was, he cheerfully says, "slaughtered." Part of the problem may have been his campaign manager, a callow whippersnapper named George W. Bush. Williams, his head then adorned by a lush Afro, persevered.
In 1990 the first President Bush appointed Williams as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, and he soon riled the civil rights lobby by ruling that college scholarships exclusively for minorities are illegal. Today his head is shaved and full of thoughts about how Republicans can make inroads with African American voters. This, he says, is how: slowly, state by state, with statewide candidates. Ken Blackwell agrees.