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.
Blackwell, another Republican, is Ohio's secretary of state and the nation's senior, in length of service, African American holder of a statewide office. He was elected Ohio's treasurer in 1994, when he became the first Ohio African American elected to statewide executive office. A conservative who supported Steve Forbes for the 2000 presidential nomination, Blackwell notes that if Al Gore had received the votes Ohioans gave Ralph Nader, Bush would have carried the state by just 1 percentage point instead of 4. So it might be momentous if in 2004 Bush increases his share of Ohio's African American vote from 9 percent to, say, 15 percent.
Winning reelection last year, Blackwell won 50 percent of the African American vote, but he does not think this helped the gubernatorial candidate at the top of the Republican ticket, Bob Taft, who won without significant African American support. However, Blackwell believes that his own statewide success made it easier for Taft to select an African American, Jennette Bradley, as his running mate for lieutenant governor.
The second African American elected lieutenant governor last year is Michael Steele, the first African American ever elected statewide in Maryland. Steele is a Republican (as was the only African American elected lieutenant governor in 1998 -- Joe Rogers in Colorado). Robert Ehrlich, who selected Steele and is now governor, may have received as much as 14 percent of the African American vote, while his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, did not get the African American turnout she needed.
Before the 2000 election, the most prominent African American in public life was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is prominent because of a Republican, the first President Bush. Never have African Americans been as prominent in a presidential administration as they are in the current one, given the war against terrorism and the prominence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the waging of it. Before the war eclipsed domestic policy, the president was particularly interested in education policy, which is the purview of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, an African American.
Britain's Conservative Party gave the country a Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and a female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The second African American elected governor of an American state since Reconstruction -- Douglas Wilder was the first, in Virginia in 1989 -- may come from America's conservative party, the ranks of whose elected and appointed officials are decreasingly monochrome. And the successes of African American Republicans in statewide elections will begin to produce modest -- and tremendously consequential -- Republican gains among African Americans in presidential elections.