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In the last two decades Roland Burris has been attorney general, director of central management services, and comptroller for three different terms. While he may be qualified to be governor of Illinois–the position he’s hoping to fill in November–his being African American could represent his biggest challenge of all.
For decades, African Americans campaigning for statewide offices have had to face a series of difficulties that have all but eliminated them from serious contention in these elections. In fact, in the history of the U.S., only one African American4former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder4has ever successfully run for a governorship. But this year, a group of black candidates think that they have the right tools to win the keys to the governor’s mansion in several states.
Along with Burris are Florida State Sen. Daryl L. Jones; New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall; Wisconsin State Sen. Gary George; former Oregon State Treasurer Jim Hill; and Michigan State Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith.
There are 36 gubernatorial races and 34 seats in the U.S. Senate up for grabs this year, and while a few African Americans have won statewide races, most have been for positions such as secretary of state, attorney general, comptroller, or lieutenant governor.
“On paper, I am the most qualified person for governor and that includes the incumbent,” says Jones, who has to get past former Attorney General Janet Reno and two other Democrats in order to face Gov. Jeb Bush. Even though the Republican Party controls Florida politics, Jones pulled off an upset in miami’s dade County in 1990 when he beat the white candidate without much support from African Americans. “I lost the black vote [in the primary, but won it in the general election],” he says, with a chuckle. But the question remains whether such an upset can occur on a statewide basis.
Win or lose, Ronald Walters, professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland, calls the 2002 gubernatorial election an unprecedented event for African Americans. “There hasn’t been another time when so many blacks have run for a statewide office at the same time.”
But simply running isn’t the objective–winning is. To do that, these candidates must overcome a plethora of challenges. David Bositis, senior researcher for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, points out that Americans tend to vote along racial lines in many states, noting that the African American population is concentrated in about 22 of them. ”You are still talking about a relatively small number of offices. You don’t expect Wyoming to elect a black governor,” he says. ”In recent years, there has been a lot of growth in statewide elected black officials in the South4Georgia, North Carolina, Texas. But you have to remember there is an element of luck involved in getting elected.”
Another challenge is the changing political environment. With a Republican in the White House and the Republican-controlled Senate, power has shifted from the left to the right. “The irony is that all these candidates for governor are coming along