ATLANTA — Black lawmakers have lost clout in Southern state capitols as their overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party has left them without power in increasingly GOP-controlled state legislatures.
The nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says in a report issued Friday that despite Barack Obama’s election as president, black voters and elected officials in the South have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era.
“Since conservative whites control all the power in the region, they are enacting legislation both neglectful of the needs of African Americans and other communities of color …” writes senior research associate David Bositis in a paper titled “Resegregation in Southern Politics?” The Washington-based think tank conducts research and policy analysis, particularly on issues that affect blacks and people of color.
Bositis points out state legislatures are increasingly divided along racial lines – making Republican synonymous with whites and Democrat and black interchangeable. According to the report, a majority of Democrats in both chambers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are black. In half of the southern state legislative chambers, blacks are a majority or near-majority of Democratic members.
“This begs the question, `what is the purpose of having a legislative black caucus when the majority of members in your legislative body are black?'” the report says.
It’s a phenomenon unique to the South, as a majority of black state lawmakers serving in legislative bodies outside of the region belong to the party in charge, the report says.
“That’s one of the costs of putting all your political capital in a single party,” said Emory University professor Merle Black, who is currently researching the rise of the Republican party in the South. “When the Democrats were in power, there was a period there when black lawmakers were very influential.”
That era is over, at least for now, Black said.
“Unless the Democrats can work out some kind of deal with the Republicans, the issues that African Americans want to get passed along would have to have enough support among Republicans to pass them,” he said.
Kansas state Rep. Barbara Ballard, who chairs the state House Democratic Caucus and is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, said Southern black lawmakers who find themselves on the margins of power need to get more creative to remain effective.
“When you have smaller numbers, you work harder and you work smarter,” said Ballard, who has served in the Kansas House for 19 years. “We still have to represent our constituents. Just because someone else is running the agenda, if we weren’t there, they would totally control everything.”
Ballard said neither black lawmakers nor their constituents can afford to look at the odds and throw up their hands.
“Look at history,” she said. “When African Americans were not able to get what they wanted, they found another avenue to increase the numbers and they started putting the pressure on. We need to look at a wider definition of clout and influence outside of the statehouse.”
Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said that without question, the Voting Rights Act as applied to redistricting has led to the consolidation of a key voting bloc in the Democratic Party: African Americans.
“The effect of that is, in the South, to weaken the ability in the party to compete in other districts,” Jankowski said. “It does have an unintended, but very clear impact on Republican prospects.”
Georgia Democratic state Rep. Tyrone Brooks remembers a different dynamic at the state Capitol. First elected in 1980, Brooks has mostly served under Democratic rule at the General Assembly, including on the influential appropriations committee, where he helped write the budget.
Based on his seniority, he could get things done, bringing his issues to the floor and getting them passed and signed into the law.
“Being in the minority, it’s not pleasant,” Brooks said. “The perception across the state is the Democratic Party is the party of black folk. When you have a racially polarized body politic, race becomes a major factor. Where we are today is a step backwards.”
In recent years, Republicans have taken over Georgia state government and now control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature.
Today, Brooks no longer serves on the appropriations committee. Despite serving in the Georgia House for more than three decades, he said he has a hard time getting buy-in from his Republican colleagues – many of whom he has known and worked alongside for years.
“You have to work extremely hard if you’re a Democrat to get anything done,” Brooks said.
White Democrats are fewer and far between in Southern statehouses. More than a dozen state lawmakers in five states defected to the GOP right after the 2010 midterm elections, underscoring dissatisfaction with Obama and the Democrats amid high unemployment and following a contentious fight over health care reform.
Before the 1994 midterm elections, nearly all black lawmakers served in the majority. Even prior to the 2010 midterm elections, about half of black state legislators in the South were in the majority, the report says. Now, only about 5 percent are in the majority.
And of the 318 black state legislators in the South, only three are Republican, according to the center.
“Virtually all black elected officials in the region are outsiders looking in,” the report claims.
The trend has strengthened the GOP’s hand in redistricting fights. Black Democrats have accused majority-Republicans in several Southern states of reducing their overall influence by packing more African-American voters than needed into black-majority districts drawn to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Several of these battles are shifting to the courts.
The report goes on to assert that Republican-controlled Southern legislatures are both failing to address the needs of blacks in areas such as health care and education, and leading “an assault on voting rights through photo identification laws and other means.” Republicans reject the charges, saying they are only trying to maintain the integrity of the voting process.
Jankowski said Southern Democrats are hurt less by racially polarized politics than by the social disparity between the region and national party.
“The Southern states, both culturally and on other issues, are more conservative than the rest of the country,” Jankowski said. “It is hard as a Democrat, whether you’re an African American or not, to defend the national Democratic Party in Southern communities at times.”
Jankowski added that Republican governors and majorities in state houses are pro-right-to-work, pro-growth and for lower taxes – positions they believe will serve as a rising tide that lifts all boats.
“They believe … the best way to get their economies going is to pursue those policies that apply equally to everyone,” he said. “I would not concede the premise that one group of people are not being addressed and others are.”
Experts say reduced black influence in Southern state capitols is not irreversible. Demographic patterns suggest an increasing number of potential minority voters such as Latinos, which could work to the advantage of African American lawmakers.
“Republicans don’t have an appeal beyond whites,” Black said. “The voting electorates in these states are becoming more diverse, and the share of the white voting population is a declining majority. That’s a factor that could potentially help Democrats.”
Brooks agreed, but said that the black electorate will also be a key to reversing the trend.
“There’s really not full participation by those we’re trying to help,” Brooks said. “When you talk about the loss of power and where we are today, a lot of that translates to the lack of participation by the very people who need our help the most. In so many ways, they’ve become their own worst enemy.”