Democrats target California drought of Black men in Congress

California gave the nation its first black vice president. But no part of the state has sent a black man to Congress in more than 20 years.

It’s a statistic so surprising that not even black men running for House seats this cycle were aware of the drought in representation until the Los Angeles Times drew attention to it in November.

“I can honestly tell you, no, it never occurred to me,” said Quaye Quartey, a black Democrat who was up against Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Santa Clarita) and third Democratic nominee Christy in Tuesday’s primary Smith arrives.

Quartey, a Ghanaian-American who served as an intelligence officer in the Navy and later as a military diplomat, said the Times’ coverage opened people’s eyes “that we have a tremendous opportunity ahead of us.”

California politicians point to several factors to explain why it’s been so long since a black man was a member of the nation’s largest congressional delegation.

These include a nationwide shift toward recruiting more women for office, a lack of opportunities for black men to run, and a false narrative about where black candidates can win.

A shift towards women

In most states where a “historic first” black member was elected, it was a man, according to Christian Grose, professor of political science and public policy at USC.

“It was when women were less likely to be officially elected, but participated quite heavily in some kind of behind-the-scenes politics,” Grose said in an interview. “Then there was kind of a breakthrough when many black women got elected in 1992 with some of the new racial redistributions. We saw some of that in California too. And then there was a general movement towards more women running for Congress and winning starting in the 1990s and 2000s.”

In 1992, two dozen new women were elected to the House of Representatives and three women to the Senate. In 2018, a record-breaking 37 women were elected to Congress. The dramatic increase in women winning office that year has been attributed to the backlash against President Trump.

Jimmie Woods-Gray, a political activist and president of the LA Fire Commission, said women are often simply better candidates.

“We’ve had women who actually had more experience and had a better handle on the communities and bases and understood the communities better,” Woods-Gray said. “A lot of the women were also picking people who were trying to take their places, so they were looking for women because we just don’t seem to have a lot of women.”

Little sales in historically black counties

Only 13 black lawmakers have ever represented California in the House or Senate, a representation mostly drawn from three LA County counties and another from Oakland. But in the last decade, one of those LA County seats has been eliminated through county redistribution.

The other long-held seats are held by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), and Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

“I don’t think it’s a smart idea to challenge an incumbent — and especially a black woman,” said Rep. Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), who will be barred from serving in the California Legislature after 2024 due to term limits.

Holden said he finds it disheartening to contemplate an electoral challenge against one of his longtime Democratic colleagues.

“If I look at my district, I have Adam Schiff to the west. I have Judy Chu who is my member of Congress. And they’re not going anywhere,” Holden said. “There is nothing I could run for because to run against them, I would run against people who share my values, share my politics.”

Five of California’s first seven black members of Congress were men, beginning with the election of Augustus Hawkins in 1962. But the last black man, former Rep. Julian Dixon (D-Los Angeles), was elected in 1978 and served until his death in December 2000. His seat is now held by Bass, who is running for mayor of Los Angeles.

The state’s trend of electing black women to Congress is likely to continue in the 37th district, where state senator Sydney Kamlager is favored to win. Kamlager is the top fundraiser in the race and has dozens of endorsements from federal, state and local officials, including Bass and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“Black women have always carried the torch for black people, whether it’s voting, politics, or involvement in a variety of issues,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove).

While there are no black men in the California congressional delegation, they outnumber seven to four black women in the legislature.

The state capitol is a natural focal point for black male congressional candidates, but some black congressmen show little interest.

“I’ve been asked over the years to consider running for Congress,” said Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which also has a term after 2024. “Based on seniority is playing in Congress and given where I am in life I don’t know if I want to be a backbench for 20 years. That’s what you almost have to be before you can have any sort of seniority and make an impactful difference.”

Bradford – who credits his mentor, the late Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Los Angeles), for getting him into politics – said Bass recently told him it took 12 years to finally find resources for her district can deliver.

“It’s just a waiting game in Congress,” said Bradford, 62. “That’s why it’s not attractive. I think that’s more true for people in their mid-30s. They can wait and see, and when they’re my age, they’re in the lead or in a position to do something.”

Changing the narrative of where black candidates can win

Black candidates in recent election cycles have helped change the narrative of where black candidates can win. Conventional wisdom was that they performed best in counties with a sizable black population. But black candidates have proven that with enough investment and resources, they can win anywhere.

“Look at the California legislature,” Bradford said. “There are no more black counties in California. There is not a single legislative district that is majority African American. You need to be a candidate who relates to all communities, and African American candidates are far better at that than many other groups because we understand the need for an overarching appeal that’s not just based on race, but also on the basis of gender.”

Stefanie Brown James, co-founder and executive director of Collective PAC, a group that promotes black candidates, said the Trump presidency has shed a light on the fact that candidates can win without political pedigree once being considered a requirement for office holders .

“The tide turned significantly in 2018 when we started seeing people who didn’t have the traditional political background running for Congress and winning,” James said, pointing to former Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.). Nurse and Senior Advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), a former National Teacher of the Year, as examples.

“These are people who didn’t have the political pedigree but ran and won and we saw that in several places,” she said.

Bass, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said not many of the members of the caucus represent majority black districts. She said candidates like Underwood and former Rep. Antonio Delgado (DN.Y.), who was appointed Lieutenant Governor of New York, have proven black candidates can win districts with tiny populations of black voters.

“I think more and more African Americans are realizing that they don’t have to stick to what have traditionally been black seats and that black people can walk almost anywhere,” Bass said.

Bass has denied claims that black male candidates in California have been handicapped by a focus on black women.

She has strove to recall black male candidates for Congress from California in recent years, save for former Senator Isadore Hall (D-Compton), who lost a congressional bid to current lawmakers. Nanette Barragán (D-San Pedro), a Latina, in 2016. But Bass said the opportunities are there, especially when black candidates broaden their horizons.

“I don’t think it’s as linear or as clear as why there aren’t that many black men because of XYZ,” Bass said. “I speculate it’s because people saw those four seats as their only chance.”

Three black men try to end the drought

Bass’ theory is about to be tested.

Quarterey, Dr. Kermit Jones and Lourin Hubbard are all seeking election to Congress outside of the seats traditionally held by black members, and all three hope to win office without going through the city council to the legislature. Congress Route, a pipeline approved by black men in the state legislature as the best route to Congress.

Like Quartey, Jones said he failed to recognize the historical nature of his campaign.

“It surprised me, but my reasons for running were specifically to try to serve again,” said Jones, a black attorney and former Navy flight surgeon who opposed Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) and the Republican sheriff of Sacramento County, Scott Jones, enters an open house seat. “And if I happen to be a black man who wants to do that and has the experience that people feel like they want someone in Congress, then so much the better.”

Jones and Hubbard, an operations manager for the California Department of Water Resources, are both fighting hard for Congress. But Quartey’s race is tighter and he must defeat another Democrat to make it to the general election.

While Jones likely makes it to the general election, Republicans have a registration advantage of 30,000 people in the Placer County district.

Hubbard has already advanced to a runoff against former assembly minority leader Connie Conway, a Republican. So the winner of Tuesday’s special election will succeed former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who resigned in January to head Trump Media & Technology Group.

The winner will take office immediately, but will only serve for about seven months as the district is eliminated in a redistricting process.

James is pleased that three of Collective PAC’s sponsors are running for seats outside of LA and Oakland.

“I think people see that black people can represent anyone and everyone in their district,” she said. “And that they can be competitive and win in non-black majority counties. And I hope that’s something that continues.” Democrats target California drought of Black men in Congress

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