African-American Newcomers, Veterans Share Political Spotlight

By Lauren Monsen
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Growing appreciation of diversity has transformed the U.S. political landscape in recent years, and the country’s 2006 midterm elections ushered in a new wave of promising black politicians.  At the same time, those elections also elevated older, more seasoned blacks in Congress, legislators whose experience and seniority are being rewarded with leadership posts.

Among the newcomers at the state level is Deval Patrick, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, whose eloquence and charisma already have generated comparisons with the better-known Senator Barack Obama (Democrat of Illinois).  (See related article.)

A native of Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods, Patrick received a scholarship to Connecticut’s prestigious Milton Academy when he was a teenager.  He took full advantage of the opportunity, becoming an academic achiever at Milton and editing the school newspaper, then winning admission to Harvard University.  After graduating from Harvard in 1978, he worked for a year in Africa and then enrolled at Harvard Law School.  He completed his law degree and established himself as an attorney, eventually becoming partner at a Boston law firm.  In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Patrick to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Following his service in Washington, Patrick returned to the private sector, but in 2005 he began to consider running for governor of Massachusetts.  Delivering an impressive speech at the Democratic state convention in June 2006, he earned his party’s nomination and quickly proved to be a gifted campaigner.  His victory in the 2006 Massachusetts gubernatorial race - and his credentials as a successful attorney and polished orator – suggest he might be a rising star in the Democratic Party.

Another fresh face is Hank Johnson (Democrat of Georgia), one of two Buddhists elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  A lawyer, he served 12 years as a local magistrate judge and five years as a county commissioner, which helped him to secure a seat on the House Judiciary Committee.  In addition, Johnson will sit on the Armed Services Committee. (See related article.)

In a November 2006 interview with cable television’s MSNBC network, Johnson pledged to work amicably with congressional colleagues of both parties.  He also hailed the election of fellow African-American Keith Ellison (Democrat of Minnesota), who takes his seat as the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives.  With Ellison’s arrival on Capitol Hill, “Congress begins to reflect the American people and what [the United States] looks like in all of its diversity,” said Johnson.

Midterm elections enhanced the standing of black political veterans as well.  For example, Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Democrat of Ohio) and Representative James Clyburn (Democrat of South Carolina) have gained prominence within the new Democratic-controlled Congress.

Jones, a former prosecutor and judge, assumed the chairmanship of the House Ethics Committee.  This means she is responsible for reviewing the conduct of her congressional peers to ensure they abide by the more stringent ethics rules adopted in the wake of recent scandals.

Speaking to National Public Radio (NPR) January 7, Jones reflected on her role as ethics enforcer on the Hill: “My background and experience qualify me for this job,” she said.  “That’s not to say I’m getting any enjoyment out of sitting in judgment of my colleagues.  But if somebody has to do it, I believe that I have the background and experience to bring integrity to the process.”

Clyburn is now the House majority whip, whose duties include the promotion of party unity in voting.  In a January 12 conversation with NPR, he said he anticipates tackling issues that are high on the Democrats’ agenda, such as negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and achieving a consensus on immigration reform.

As the legislative session progresses, said Clyburn, interparty discussions will “get tougher,” particularly on hot-button issues like immigration.  However, he stressed that Democrats must make serious progress on voters’ priorities before the 2008 presidential election overshadows all else.  By August, according to Clyburn, attention will have shifted to the presidential race, where another African American, Senator Barack Obama, is poised to have a substantial effect, and provide yet more proof that blacks are a force to be reckoned with in the U.S. political arena.