Politics Mondays: Black Politicians' Legacies Inspire Sons' Ambitions by Jonathan Casiano
Passing political power from one generation to the next is as old as politics itself.
The Adamses. The Kennedys. The Keans. The Bushes. Names synonymous with privilege, prestige and public service.
Now, as the first generation of black leaders elected after the civil rights movement eye retirement, they are finding the successors where white politicians have always looked -- their own families.
Across the country, from Detroit to New York City, St. Louis to Atlanta, black politicians are passing the baton to offspring. Over the past decade, the children of five prominent black politicians have taken seats in Congress, and numerous others have won city and state contests.
Newark is no exception. This year's city council race will feature the sons of Newark's three most prominent politicians -- Mayor Sharpe James, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10th Dist.) and state Sen. Ron Rice. Councilman Ras Baraka, son of civil rights pioneer Amiri Baraka, also will appear on the ballot.
Though none of the four candidates is assured victory, historians and academics specializing in African-American politics say their candidacies are a watershed moment in black politics.
"It's really a critical moment," said Khalilah Brown-Dean, assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at Yale University. "The old guard of black political leaders are trying to pass the torch and they're developing a very solid base within their own families and then spreading outward."
Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, said it is no surprise the second generation of black politicians will include many of the same surnames as the first, which were swept into office after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"They're capitalizing on the family name and doing pretty much the same thing white politicians have always done," said Walters, who served as an adviser to Jesse Jackson during both his presidential campaigns. "It looks like American politics. If somebody gets name recognition, why wouldn't young people who want to go into politics use it?"
John James, 37, the Newark mayor's son, makes no bones about using his father's name and connections for his political aspirations. As a candidate for council in the city's South Ward, John James will appear on the ballot as J. Sharpe James, and benefit, by his own admission, from his father's longtime donors and advisers.
But James said he also brings something new to the table -- a law degree, management experience and the perspective of a Newarker born in the wake of race riots and raised during a tumultuous reconstruction.
"If you want to be a critic and only want to look at my father, then do that. But strip that away and I'm a young man who grew up in Newark," James said. "I was shot at 17, so I didn't live a sheltered life. I went to high school at St. Benedict's, went to Morehouse for college, served as an officer in the military from college to present day. ... I've worked my way up."
Ron Rice Jr., on the other hand, may not be endorsed by his father in his bid for West Ward councilman, just as the senior Rice did not back his son during the 2002 campaign, when Ron Rice Jr. aligned with mayoral candidate Cory Booker, and Ron Rice Sr., who is running for mayor this year, sided with James.
Rice Jr. said he has also built his own campaign staff and shunned many of his father's longtime contributors. Still, even he admits his surname has made the transition into politics easier.
"It's an entree into places people who don't have the name would have trouble getting into," Rice Jr. said. "If you like the way he (Rice Sr.) fights on behalf of people, you'll like how I fight on behalf of people. In that aspect, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
According to David Bositis, a senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, the generational shift began around 1994 when Marc Morial succeeded his father, Ernest "Dutch" Morial as mayor of New Orleans. The following year, Jesse Jackson Jr. was elected to Congress from Illinois. In 1996, Harold Ford Jr. took his father's seat in Congress representing Memphis.
Since then, the children of black politicians have made inroads at all levels of government.
In Detroit, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is the son of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. In Florida, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek took over his mother's district unopposed.
"Plumbers' sons become plumbers. Politicians' sons become politicians," Bositis said. "It's sort of like the natural order of things."
Indeed, Donald Payne Jr. said that when he accompanied his father to Washington for the Congressional Black Caucus weekends he would often discuss community issues with the other Caucus members' children. He even considered forming a group called "Congressional Black Siblings" to help him network with Jesse Jackson Jr., Kwame Kilpatrick and others before they launched their own political careers.
"A lot of people say you guys are like a family business, but I kind of take exception to that," said Donald Payne Jr., who was elected to the Essex County Freeholder Board in November and is now eyeing an at-large seat on the city council. "Nobody questions the Ford children when they want to go into the car business. The examples you have growing up are naturally going to cause you to lean that way and when it comes to my father, why wouldn't I want to be like him?"
Still, not everyone thinks the political handoffs are a good thing.
Rahman Muhammad, the influential head of the city workers' union in Newark, acknowledges the children of leaders may have something to offer, but wants the political party heads, and the voters, to give equal consideration to candidates without famous names.
"We need to get away from that because that's why people get apathetic about politics," he said. "People see the system as being hijacked by a certain few and think that a certain few families are the only ones that have a chance of being in office."
Bositis, however, said that perception is not supported by nationwide statistics. In fact, he said plenty of young black leaders have gained office in recent years without family connections, the most famous example being U.S. Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois.
"If you look at the numbers, you're really not having any dynasty created," Bositis said. "They're still a small percentage of the people who get elected to public office."
And once they're in office, Walters, of the African-American Leadership Institute, said the children of the old guard have proven to be quite effective in bringing their peers into the fold. Though they may rely on their parents' staffers in the beginning for guidance, Walters pointed to second-generation politicians like Kwame Kilpatrick, who helped expedite the transfer of power in Detroit.
"Kwame started out with his mother's people, but then there was a youth movement that he pretty much generated. He brought a lot of those younger colleagues into office with him," Walters said.
Brown-Dean also notes that just because a second-generation candidate is elected doesn't mean there will be a king-like reign.
"We really have to give citizens and voters more credit. Just because you get in the door because of family attachment, there's no guarantee you'll stay," Brown-Dean said. "The sons of these officials can't be too comfortable."
Jonathan Casiano covers Essex County government. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appears in The Star Ledger.
Monday, March 20, 2006