In modern times, four African-Americans have served, and each has been the lone African-American senator serving Edward Brooke (1967-1979) of Massachusetts, Carol Mosley Braun of Illinois (1993-1999), Barack Obama (2005-2008) of Illinois, and Roland Burris (2009-2010) of Illinois. Braun, Obama and Burris all held the same seat, with Braun winning it during the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, Obama winning it in 2004 before winning the presidency in 2008, and Roland Burris currently holding it as an appointed senator who will not run for re-election.
Though former Urban League executive Cheryle Jackson valiantly attempted to succeed Burris, and garnered 21 percent of the vote, there is no African-American in the final running for the Illinois Senate seat.
Will the Senate return to its usual lily-White state (it has been segregated longer than it has had an African-American presence) after the 2010 election? That depends on whether Congressman Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., is able to prevail in his Florida primary Aug. 24. While former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have held fundraisers for Meek, Meek is not the frontrunner in his primary. Indeed, some say that Meek has garnered insufficient Democratic support and that at the rate the race is going, the state that President Obama won in 2008 may be the site of a Republican victory this year.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist withdrew from the Republican primary to run as an independent when polls said that former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, supposedly a darling of the Tea Party crowd, would whip him in the polls. So Crist started drifting slightly to the left of his formerly solid Republican positions. In drifting left, he has attracted some of the Democratic money that might otherwise have gone to Kendrick Meek. Meanwhile on the Democratic side, billionaire Democrat Jeff Green has decided to challenge Meek for the Democratic nomination. With deep pockets, Green can challenge Meek, but he is unlikely to beat either Gov. Crist or Speaker Rubio. If Meek can’t pull this one off, the United States Senate will become, again, a segregated body. So much for post-racial America.
Why aren’t more Democrats embracing the Meek race? Money runs with money, and many in the Democratic monied crowd do business with Jeff Green and will support him. How to explain Gov. Crist’s inroad into coffers that might have been considered Democratic? Somebody had better ask the Democrats about that. Crist’s victory in Florida could be a precursor to election results in 2012.
Is it important that an African-American serve in the United States Senate? One might argue that a good senator is a good senator and that you don’t have to be African-American to support important causes like health care, full employment, education, and other progressive issues (the late Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., along with Al Franken, D-Minn., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif, Bernard Sanders, D-Vt. among others).
At the same time, it is bone-chilling that we still have the possibility of segregated legislative bodies in the so-called post-racial 21st century. Let’s not forget that the United States Senate just voted down an unemployment insurance extension, leaving nearly two million Americans without financial support in the midst of this unemployment crisis. The July 3 employment report suggests that the official unemployment rate has dropped from 9.7 to 9.5 percent for June, but if you dig beneath the headlines, you’ll find that more than 600,000 people dropped out of the labor force or stopped looking for work.
Had they hung in there the unemployment rate would have risen to 9.9 percent instead of dropping. Last month, the economy generated 125,000 fewer than it had the month before, and 25.8 million Americans were either employed or underemployed. Nearly half—45 percent—had not held jobs in six months. But the United States Senate, citing fiscal responsibility, refused to extend unemployment insurance for them.
Who will better understand the plight of the unemployed, Kendrick Meek, Jeff Green, Charlie Crist or Marco Rubio? A review of their records suggests that Meek will bring a passion to serve the underserved to the rather patrician and otherwise all-White Senate.
If the Democratic Party does not fully embrace the candidacy of Kendrick Meek, they may choose to lose Florida in the 2012 presidential election. With just six weeks away from the Aug. 24 primary, the Dems can’t afford inaction or inertia. A decision made three weeks from now may be too little, too late. Are we about to experience a blast from the past, an again all-White United States Senate?
(Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.)
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