SHOULD RACE MATTER IN ENDORSEMENTS?
Prince George’s County Executive (essentially the mayor) Rushern L. Baker III (an African American) endorsed Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) over Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD) in the race to replace retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski. Edwards is African American, Van Hollen , Edwards also lives in Prince George’s county, the county that houses our nation’s wealthiest African Americans. So far, she is the only African American in the race, and faces the prospect of joining Kamala Harris, an announced candidate for the California Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Barbara Boxer
This may seem like a local story, but it has national implications. Both Edwards and Van Hollen are likely to seek contributions from all over the country. Furthermore, the possibility of having an African American woman in the Senate is an opportunity for African American women’s issues to be raised on the Senate floor. Finally, Edwards’ presence on committees dealing with work, health care, and banking will bring a much-needed perspective to a Senate that is overwhelmingly (96 percent in 2014).
With an African American female Senator, would Loretta Lynch’s confirmation for the cabinet position of Attorney General still be languishing? Or would Senator Edwards remind fellow senators that their treatment of African American women has hardly been fair? Senator Edwards might also raise issues that impact all women, but African American women especially, given the fact that we have lower incomes, and a higher rate of single motherhood. African American women have also been the targets of disparaging remarks about public assistance and food stamps, as if no Caucasian’s participate in these programs. An African American woman senator would likely raise objections and stop senatorial trash talk about African American women it its tracks.
Why, then, have the highest-ranking elective officers both African American men, chosen the Caucasian Van Hollen over Edwards. Baker says he knows Van Hollen and has worked well with him. He says he has made this endorsement “in the interest of the county.” It has nothing to do with race, he says, but familiarity. Yet Baker has not indicated what makes Van Hollen a better candidate than Edwards. I won’t speculate whether the Baker pick has something more to do with gender than politics, but I do think his action raises national questions about race and endorsements.
Isiah Leggett, another Maryland county executive, has been a mentor and former professor to Baker. Leggett posits that race shouldn’t matter as much as it used to, and that “freedom” includes the right to step outside racial lines to make the endorsements of one’s choice. True. Again, I wonder if these early endorsements would be different if there were a African American man, as opposed to Van Hollen, were also running for this Senate seat.
When all else is equal, I choose to vote for the African American candidate instead of the Caucasian one. When the candidate is a progressive Democrat, I’d expect them to be far more sensitive to my issues than a candidate. Both Edwards and Van Hollen are likely to vote much the way that the liberal Barbara Mikulski did. However, I expect that Edwards will be far more aggressive in advocating for the African American community than Van Hollen.
Further, in light of the recent killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina, and the massacres of Eric Gardner and Michael Brown (among others), it seems specious to say that race does’t matter. In light of the double-digit unemployment rates African Americans experience (twice those of s), race still matters and the need for target employment programs have not been raised in this Senate, even when Democrats held it. Edwards would be forceful in pushing these programs. Baker especially owes his county an explanation both because it is majority African American (65 percent) and also because his count elected Edwards to Congress four times. Baker has used his position to go against the preferences of his county.
There has been a blurring of racial lines in our nation and in politics. Increasing numbers of Americans are biracial or multi-racial, and identify with every aspect of their background. Many choose to check the “biracial” on census forms, an option that was unavailable two decades ago. Apparently the “one drop” rule is obsolete, unless a mixed race person collides with the wrong officer of the law. Still, I think that race should matter in endorsements, especially when history is about to be made. Rushern Baker and Isiah Leggett owe their constituents a more substantive explanation than the one they have offered.