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Whether Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential run ends successfully at the White House, the historic implications and the visibility of his campaign may provide a boost to the careers of other prominent African American politicians, as well as those who come behind them, experts say.
“There are a series of young politicians on the cusp of some national attention that may be ready to move up,” says Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the School of Public Affairs at UCLA.
On the Democratic side there’s Adrian M. Fenty, mayor of Washington, D.C.; former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr.; Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, he says. The Republican Party has its share of political stars that are poised for national success as well, says Frances Rice, chairman of the Sarasota, Florida-based National Black Republican Association. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele; Georgia Congressional Candidate Deborah Honeycutt; legendary football player Lynn Swann; and former Ohio Secretary of State John Kenneth Blackwell are among those highly regarded in Republican circles, she says.
Not only is the Obama campaign giving America exposure to a black candidate, making some voters more comfortable with the idea of an African American in office, but it also highlights the rise of a different kind of black politician, says Charles P. Henry, professor of African American studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
“There’s a generational shift,” Henry says. “The newer politicians like Deval Patrick and [Newark, New Jersey Mayor] Cory Booker come from more traditional legal backgrounds rather than coming up through the church or coming up through the Civil Rights Movement like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and [Georgia Congressman] John Lewis did.”
Experts expect that trend to continue partly because of societal changes. Younger politicians, for example, were not as influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and have grown up in a multicultural society.
Another interesting question arising from Obama’s campaign is how it will affect the campaign strategies of black politicians that come behind him, says Gilliam. “Most people think Obama’s running a campaign where race isn’t at the top of the agenda in and of itself,” he says. However, the “conventional mode for black politicians has been to run a race-based kind of campaign.”
A number of other Black politicians such as Steele, Fenty, and Patrick have also made race less of an issue, a move that is more in line with the viewpoint and strategies of many Black Republicans, says Rice. “There really never was a glass ceiling in rising toward the top levels of success for black people,” she says. Without the extreme focus on race that has characterized many Democratic campaigns, “we might very well have a black candidate poised to be the Republican nominee,” she adds.
Not only might Obama’s candidacy impact the careers of current politicians, but it may have far-reaching implications for young people who had not considered a career in politics before. The very fact that Obama has managed to become the presumptive Democratic nominee is inspiring some younger African