Points By Drew Pritt

More Wilder, Less Gantt if Barack Obama wants to Win.
June 18, 2008, 2:11 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


In the 1990’s two African-American men burst onto the American Political scene. They were different from the Jesse Jackson and Charles Evers type candidate who made symbolic bids to pave the way for their community. These were two men running to win top offices, Douglas Wilder and Harvey Gantt. Wilder ran successfully for Governor of Virginia in 1989 and Harvey Gantt unsucessfully ran for U.S. Senate in North Carolina in 1990 and 1996. In both of their campaigns, the crowds were big and boisterous, the rhetoric broad and sweeping. Even when either of the Democratic challengers did not say so explicitly, the campaign was clearly out to make history, as it was a crusade. However, the way Wilder successfully won and where Gantt narrowly fell short both times is how they approached the voters. If Barack Obama wants to win the White House he would be wise to be more like Wilder, who now is the Mayor of Richmond, Virginia, and less like Gantt.

Wilder, the grandson of slaves, began his career in public office after winning a 1969 special election to the State Senate of Virginia, becoming the first African American state Senator from Virginia since Reconstruction. In 1985, he narrowly was elected Lt. Governor, becoming yet again a trailblazer. He did so with help from Senate colleagues and building a coalition of labor, rural State Senators and the Courthouse crowd, along with female voters. In 1989, Wilder launched a bid for Governor of Virginia.

Wilder announced a ”Three-for-Virginia'” plan: permanent tax relief, a fight against drugs and drug-related crime, and creation of jobs and housing for rural Virginians. In contrast to Jesse Jackson’s often divisive politics of prophecy, Wilder was the candidate of consensus progress and a united Democratic Party. Wilder had consciously shaped his persona to make his blackness and ground-breaking achievements seem almost boring and quietly inevitable. He did not disown his racial identity, tossing off laugh lines like, “How can I not think of myself as a black man? I shave.” Wilder said with almost perverse pride, “I’ve never been identified as an activist.” Even during the turbulent 1960s, Wilder was far more concerned with amassing wealth, as a millionaire trial lawyer, than with civil rights protest. In his successful bid for State Senate in 1969, he shrewdly outmaneuvered the would-be candidate of the Richmond black establishment, pointedly set up his headquarters in the downtown business district and won an estimated 18% of the white vote. Wilder soon began learning how to be a political insider, not a lonely crusader. He bridged centuries of Virginia history by forging personal alliances with rural conservatives and deflected racially insensitive comments with wit and humor. Even as he waged a long and ultimately successful fight to establish a state holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Wilder’s legislative priorities reflected the interests of trial lawyers and the Richmond business community. In back-room bargaining, Wilder was a tough, unyielding adversary.

In a sense, Wilder was the beneficiary of old- fashioned back-room politics, just as Irish, Italian and Jewish candidates were in the urban North decades ago. With the aid of the then-Senator Charles Robb and outgoing Governor Gerald Baliles organization, plus his own ties to Richmond business interests, Wilder was able to raise $7.2 million, avoiding the traditional fate of ill-funded black candidates.

Gantt on the other hand was an activist. He was the first black student at Clemson University and ended up becoming the first black Mayor of Charlotte. In 1990, he beat out Mike Easley for the U.S. Senate nomination. Easley, who was Attorney General, ended up going on to become Governor of North Carolina.

In Gantt’s first Senate bid, ge made the race as a simple choice: an arch-conservative (Jesse Helms) who is consumed with fringe causes and out of touch with the needs of the state versus a progressive workhorse devoted to education, health care, the bread-and-butter concerns of working families.  Helms on the other hand made it about a struggle between a tax-and-spend liberal and a principled conservative who is a trusted incumbent committed to cutting Government spending and protecting basic values. Gantt got mired down into issues tailor made for Republicans. In 1990, he defended $2 million dollars to the Endowment for the Arts that came about under his tenure as Mayor. In 1996, he defended basic human rights for the GLBT Community.

Gantt ran on the clever slogan “Don’t say can’t, say Gantt.” He brushed aside the conventional wisdom that as a black Democrat in a statewide race in the South he would have to run a carefully conservative campaign. He opposed the death penalty, would not rule out supporting votes for new taxes, an adamant and proud supporter of abortion rights, addressed the National Organization for Women, said he would vote 100% for the AFL-CIO, and proudly wore the liberal label.

In conceding defeat to Helms in 1990, Gantt said, “The national implication of this race is that the cultural and racial issues Helms raised, such as homosexuals teaching in the classroom and racial quotas, are powerful weapons for the Republican Party. People have to understand that the questions Helms raised in this election were not revisits to old cultural and racial issues. Instead, they raised some of the toughest battleground issues that will be fought out over the next few years.”

Most powerful in Helms arsenal that year was a television ad featuring a white job applicant crumbling a rejection letter as an announcer said the job was given to a less-qualified black because of job quotas, which Gantt supports. Gantt tried to explain the nuances of the issue. Experts say Senator Helms’s ads, which were also on radio and in the press, had the effect of both winning over undecided white voters and generating enough enthusiasm among whites to create an extraordinarly heavy turnout, 60 percent of registered voters, comparable to that of a Presidential election.

”There’s a race ceiling on the aspirations of talented black politicians, and for that matter on the untalented,” said Julian Bond when he was Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ”The ordinary white city councilman can aspire to be anything in elective office. He or she may not make it, but their aspirations are unlimited. The typical black politician simply cannot do that.”

There are more black elected officials today than ever: 9,836 in 2005, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, compared with 1,469 in 1970. But the vast majority are local politicians in majority black districts. That is particularly true in Southern states, which have the country’s largest concentrations of black voters and the largest numbers of black elected officials.

In 2006, Deval Patrick (D) became only the 2nd African-American elected as Governor of a state (Massachusetts) with Wilder being the first. Pure racism is not the only explanation. For a black politician to become a congressman or mayor, they have to have a base with a black electorate that has a very liberal agenda and that becomes baggage when you run statewide.

Only time will tell but for Obama to win, it has to be less soaring rhetoric, and comparisons to Bobby Kennedy and more uniting with the Clinton Campaign organization and other southern political organizations to win. A Governor Brad Henry in Oklahoma or a Mike Beebe in Arkansas or a Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, or even as fantastic as it sounds, a Governor Steve Beshear in Kentucky, have more strength to bring to a ticket than a liberal running mate from a traditionally blue state.

Wilder knew how to build coalitions and won. Gantt stood on principle and is a great man but lost not once but twice.





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