We Shall Overcome, Too

A cadre of young, centrist African Americans is redefining black politics

In Alabama, congressional races are usually sleepy affairs. This has been especially true in the Seventh Congressional District, which includes parts of Birmingham and Montgomery, birthplace of the civil rights movement. For the past 10 years, the African American majority there overwhelmingly reelected civil rights standard-bearer Earl F. Hilliard, 60. But on June 25, the first black Alabaman to serve in Congress since Reconstruction was defeated in a $1.5 million slugfest.

The victor? Another African American. But the similarity ends there. Artur Davis, who defeated Hilliard in a Democratic primary runoff, is an ambitious, Harvard-educated former prosecutor who ran as a pro-business moderate. The 34-year-old Davis bested Hilliard by challenging him as an old-school pol and pounding at his support for the Palestinians.

With no Republican opponent, Davis is assured of a seat in Congress. He also joins a small but influential cadre of African Americans who are redefining what it means to be a black elected official. These young guns may be

Democrats, but they are more centrist than their "take it to the street" elders, whose views were shaped by the civil rights struggle. They largely eschew Big Government and instead march to the cadence of economic growth, high-tech jobs, free trade, and even tax cuts. The day after his surprise upset, Davis pledged "to reach out in an aggressive manner to the business community."

This new breed is also more willing to experiment with alternatives to traditional social welfare programs. Some are amenable to vouchers and charter schools to fix public education. "The younger generation," says David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian, "is unwilling to simply embrace earlier agendas just because older generations espoused them."

Among others looking to push aside the old guard are Cory Booker, 33, who became a media darling when he challenged four-term Newark (N.J.) Mayor Sharpe James, 66. While Booker's bid fell short, he vows to run again.

Then there's Kwame M. Kilpatrick, 32, the youngest elected mayor in Detroit's history, and Representative Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who won his father's seat in 1996 at age 26. And Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who at 48 is older than his New Wave brethren, is giving Texas Attorney General John Cornyn a run for his money to represent the Lone Star State in the U.S. Senate.

The philosophical breach between younger and older black pols can be traced in part to their divergent experiences. As the older generation came of age, the federal government was a positive force in their lives. Washington not only removed the vestiges of Jim Crow laws but also provided money to build schools, create jobs, and subsidize health care and housing. But the younger pols missed that struggle. "In school, I studied what my parents participated in," says Booker.

The younger cohort seems more aware of the limits of what government can accomplish, particularly in the realm of education. For example, the poor performance of inner-city schools has prodded upstarts such as Booker to support vouchers, a position that doesn't sit well with the old guard.

According to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 49% of black officials between ages 18 and 40 support vouchers, compared with only 23% of those between ages 50 and 64. Now that the Supreme Court has declared vouchers constitutional, some younger black leaders may be even more emboldened to champion the use of public funds for private education.

Of course, to implement their agendas, these whippersnappers must first win election. But the torch is rarely passed without a struggle. When polls showed that Davis was closing in on Hilliard, 27 House members, including Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), sent checks to support the incumbent. In Booker's case, New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey promised to support a sports arena for Newark if voters reelected James.

Many black leaders also worry that the young bloods have been too quick to abandon the civil rights cause. "There are still scars of racism embedded in American society," warns Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.), who organized the first lunch counter sit-in and who recorded campaign messages for Hilliard's reelection bid. "We are not there yet, and I hope the new breed understands that."

Former Dallas Mayor Kirk says that, by running for office, he is paying homage to the generation that paved his way but is under no obligation to push their philosophy. "Public service is the way I repay my parents," he says. "I have to be given the latitude to bring my experience to the table, and my experience is different from theirs."

Scions of political families, such as Kilpatrick and Ford, have had an easier time winning office. Kilpatrick's mother, Carolyn C. Kilpatrick, has represented Detroit in Congress for the past six years. And Ford's father, ex-Representative Harold Ford Sr., represented Memphis for 22 years. But the familial resemblances end there. Kilpatrick has pledged to expand Detroit's economy, not with new government programs but by attracting new technology companies. And Ford, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition in the House, supports free-trade initiatives.

Ford chafes at being confined to a traditional civil rights agenda. When asked to give the keynote address at the 2000 Democratic convention, he penned a stem-winder advocating tough education standards. Presidential nominee Al Gore's advisers, however, had their own speech, one laden with references to the civil rights struggle. Ford refused to deliver it, making his national debut as a New Dem who happened to be black, rather than vice versa.

A centrist political philosophy has an obvious upside for black politicians: They will have a better shot at winning statewide or even national office if they can appeal to moderate white voters. Ford openly discusses his ambitions to run for a Senate seat. And it's no accident that Kirk, who was twice elected mayor of racially diverse Dallas--the second time with 74% of the vote--boasts on the campaign trail of his strong ties to the business community. Kirk also likes to mention that, on his watch, the Dallas City Council cut property and auto taxes. "Their political philosophy has to speak to more than their African American constituents if they want to win outside of minority districts," says Al From, CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

With the graying of the civil rights movement, a generational hand-off is inevitable. On May 14, as Booker anxiously awaited election returns in the Newark mayoral primary, From called to lift the candidate's spirits. "I told Cory he shouldn't be disappointed if he lost," From says. "Regardless of the outcome, it spelled the end of Sharpe's career--and the beginning of his."

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

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