Image: Rep. Keith Ellison
Jonathan Ernst  /  Getty Images file
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), seen here in 2007, represents a predominantly white district.
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updated 10/14/2008 3:29:08 AM ET 2008-10-14T07:29:08

Melanie Levesque grabbed the campaign signs from her Mercedes S.U.V. and plunged into the white crowd at the fairgrounds here. The cows were lowing, the cider presses churning and Mrs. Levesque, a black state legislator, was hunting for votes and a place in history.

Blacks account for less than 1 percent of the population in this small suburban district near the Massachusetts border. But none of that seemed to matter to the people here at an annual fall festival this month.

A group of snowy-haired retirees promptly invited Mrs. Levesque to a potluck dinner. Art Fenske, a 91-year-old former paratrooper who served in World War II, presented her with a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Don’t ever give up.”

And next month, Mrs. Levesque is expected to win re-election to her seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where she represents one of the whitest districts in one of the whitest states in the nation. She is part of a new generation of black elected officials who are wooing white voters and winning local elections in predominantly white districts across the country.

Political analysts say such electoral gains are quietly changing the political landscape, increasing the number of black lawmakers adept at crossing color lines as well as the ranks of white voters who are familiar, and increasingly comfortable, with black political leadership.

The black officials, who often serve in small- and medium-size towns, have been overshadowed by the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who if elected would be the first African-American to hold that office.

But over the last 10 years, about 200 black politicians have won positions once held by whites in legislatures and city halls in states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee.

In 2007, about 30 percent of the nation’s 622 black state legislators represented predominantly white districts, up from about 16 percent in 2001, according to data collected by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group based in Washington that has kept statistics on black elected officials for nearly 40 years.

Political scientists and local officials also point to an increase in the number of black mayors who represent predominantly white cities in places like Asheville, N.C., population 74,000, and Columbus, Ohio, population 748,000. According to a study conducted by Zoltan L. Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, about 40 percent of Americans have lived in or near cities that have elected black mayors or in states with black governors.

Most black elected officials, however, still represent predominantly black communities. And Dr. Hajnal and other analysts say racial animosity toward black candidates still exists and may affect the results of local and national elections, including the race for president. But he said such feelings were declining.

“There’s a fair amount of experience out there among white voters now, and that has lessened the fears about black candidates,” said Dr. Hajnal, whose book about white experiences with black mayors, “Changing White Attitudes Toward Black Political Leadership,” was published last year by Cambridge University Press.

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At the fall festival here in New Hampshire, white voters peppered Mrs. Levesque — one of six black state legislators in New Hampshire — with questions about property taxes, repairs to the police station and local zoning rules. No one mentioned race.

“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Mrs. Levesque, 51, who in 2006 was the first African-American to be elected to represent her legislative district. “I just feel like I’m a real part of my community.”

Some of the officials who have bridged the racial divide have achieved national prominence, like Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, whose state is 79 percent white.

In Congress, several black lawmakers now represent predominantly white districts, including Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Representative Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri, Democrats who were elected in 2006 from districts that are more than 60 percent white.

“I had great concerns,” said Mr. Cleaver, recalling his initial fears that white voters, particularly in rural communities, would not support him in sufficient numbers to ensure victory.

“But the truth is that the hard-core bigots are dwindling in numbers,” he said. “All of this fear — ‘Is he going to throw watermelons at us?’ — all of that stuff was gone.”

Video: Where'd you go, Ohio? The broadest shift, though, has been at the local level.

In the 1980s, few black state legislators represented predominantly white districts, said David A. Bositis, the senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies who conducted the most recent study of black state legislators.

By 2001, that number stood at 92, according to Tyson King-Meadows and Thomas F. Schaller, political scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who analyzed statistics from the joint center and other sources. In 2007, the figure was 189, Mr. Bositis said.

About 45 percent of the black state lawmakers represent communities that are 35 percent to 40 percent black in states like Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina. But roughly a quarter represent communities where blacks make up 20 percent or less of the population, including districts in Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan and Tennessee.

Such change, however, does not always come easily.

In Tennessee, Representative Nathan Vaughn, first elected to the legislature in 2002 from a district that is 97 percent white, remembers extending his hand to a white man during one of his campaigns. Mr. Vaughn said the man refused to take it, uttering a racial epithet and saying he would never vote for a black man.

In Iowa, Helen Miller, an assistant majority leader in the State House of Representatives, was advised by a supporter not to include her photograph in her campaign flyers to avoid alienating voters. (Ms. Miller ignored that advice and in 2002 became the first black legislator from her district.)

In New Hampshire, Representative Kris E. Roberts, the first black committee chairman in the legislature, said white lawmakers repeatedly confused him with two other state representatives, one African-American and the other Hispanic. Mr. Roberts said that he tried to laugh it off but that the mistake still stung.

“Sometimes we get together and joke, ‘Yeah, all of us brothers look alike,’ ” said Mr. Roberts, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who is chairman of the House veterans affairs committee. “But after four years, you would expect them to know the difference.”

Mike Carbone, a white retired councilman from Keene, N.H., who supports Mr. Roberts and Mr. Obama, said racism still influenced some people when they walked into the voting booth.

“In this small town here, you’ll hear people say, ‘I wouldn’t vote for that black man,’ ” Mr. Carbone said.

“But this man can talk and talk sense,” he added, referring to Mr. Roberts, who is running for re-election. “We’re in changing times. You’ve got to break the barrier somewhere.”

Some black lawmakers caution that white support for blacks at the local level may not necessarily translate into backing for Mr. Obama. But political analysts believe that experience with black leadership at the local level may have already helped some white voters feel comfortable supporting Mr. Obama in the Democratic primaries and may help him again in November.

Mr. Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the trend might have implications beyond the presidential election. State legislative seats are often steppingstones to higher positions, and these new politicians, he said, may well become the next generation of black governors, Congressional leaders and more.

“If these black candidates can represent white voters,” Mr. Bositis said, “then that substantially increases their horizons in terms of their political futures.”

Here in Brookline, Mrs. Levesque is still focused on November, even though a white rival, Don Ryder, believes she will easily win re-election. “Race never enters into it,” Mr. Ryder said. “Her chances are very good.”

Still, Mrs. Levesque, a telecommunications consultant who grew up in New Hampshire, sometimes marvels at how far she has come.

As one of a handful of black students in her junior high school, she experienced racial taunts, as well as advice that was well intended but unwelcome. Some sympathetic white friends, she said, suggested that she might have an easier time fitting in if she prayed for white skin.

But mostly, Mrs. Levesque said, she has been embraced by her white neighbors, colleagues and friends. In her district of 12,000 people, she is a member of the women’s club and a local church, which she joined with her husband and 12-year-old daughter several years ago.

And when she worried at first that voters might be put off by her complexion, her white friends suggested that she consider another, more positive possibility.

“ ‘You’ll stand out,’ ” said Mrs. Levesque, recalling their words. “ ‘People are always going to remember you.’ ”

Kitty Bennett and Barclay Walsh contributed reporting.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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