Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris was a first step in paying back the Black voters who did so much to revive his political fortunes in South Carolina. But if Biden is elected, he will have an incredible opportunity to elevate an unprecedented number of new Black governors — due to the high number of Black lieutenant governors poised to move up if a vacancy occurs – and perhaps a few United States senators as well. (He could also “create” California’s first woman governor and several Hispanic and Native American governors.)
In 1970, the number of Black local elected officials was 1,400. Today, that number has increased ten-fold to over 15,000. There are a record-high 52 Blacks serving in the House and three in the U.S. Senate (including Harris).
But governors’ offices have remained a source of frustration for Black pols. Since the 1960s, there have been six Black senators elected (including Obama), but only two Black governors. And both of them – Doug Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts – were elected due to exceptional circumstances: Wilder won in 1989 when a Supreme Court decision on abortion scared suburban women away from the Republican candidate, and Patrick in 2006 was carried in on the coattails of Ted Kennedy in the only state that went for George McGovern in 1972 – and elected Ed Brooke in 1966 as the first Black senator since the Civil War/Reconstruction era. (Obviously, in light of President Obama’s election in 2008, race is no longer an automatic deal-breaker for Black candidates).
However, Biden could double or even triple the number of Black governors next winter with his appointments. The 2017 and 2018 elections saw Democrats post impressive gains at the statehouse level – including the election of a record number of Black lieutenant governors. Black Democrats currently serving in that post include: Juliana Stratton in Illinois, Garlin Gilchrist (pictured) in Michigan, Sheila Oliver in New Jersey, Justin Fairfax in Virginia and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin. There’s even a Black Republican LG — Boyd Rutherford in Maryland –and a Cuban-American, Jeanette Nunez of Florida, should Mr. Biden want to appoint a few Republicans to leadership roles in his administration.
A President Biden could make Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker commerce secretary. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy previously served as ambassador to Germany, so how about the United Nations next? Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has experience as a prosecutor; perhaps attorney general or a judgeship would work? Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has served as Wisconsin superintendent of public instruction, thus making him a good fit for education secretary (though the chances of Evers and Barnes may have gone up in Kenosha’s flames). All of these appointments would immediately result in a new Black governor. If all four of these state chief executives were made part of a new Biden-Harris administration, there would be more Black governors created in one month than in the last 100 years! (Mr. Fairfax is unlikely to rise because Gov. Ralph Northam and he are both under ethical clouds.)
Mr. Biden could also open opportunities for Black U.S. Senate candidates: With Harris as vice president, California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint a replacement. Rep. Karen Bass, who was the first Black female speaker of the State Assembly and was on Biden’s “shortlist” for VP, would be in the mix. Also, by appointing Sen. Elizabeth Warren to a Cabinet post, a special election to fill her seat would be required within a few months. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of the progressive “Squad” could be a strong contender in liberal Massachusetts.
Other minority LGs could also be promoted, in effect, by Biden: New Mexico has LG Howie Morales. Minnesota LG Peggy Flanagan is of Native American descent. Women are a majority of California voters, but the Golden State still hasn’t elected a female chief executive. Making Newsom, say, secretary of the interior, would make LG Eleni Kounalakis the first female governor. There are virtually limitless numbers of Democrats at the local level who could move up with the right move by Biden. He has the chance to deliver real power to Blacks, not just symbolism.
A new presidential administration always opens up new jobs for party loyalists. And in 2021, the party faithful waiting in line include a record-breaking number of minority candidates. This is a real “Rosa Parks” moment for Biden and the Democrats. Will they step up?