The Black Candidate 

What Charles Ramsey's bid for the state assembly says about the state of black politics

Charles Ramsey recalls visiting Maudelle Shirek one day at the New Light Senior Center in South Berkeley, where the ninety-year-old council member serves food every morning. Shirek, Berkeley's radical answer to civil-rights icon Rosa Parks, introduced Ramsey to a woman who had received one of the Assembly candidate's pre-recorded phone messages, but never actually seen him before.

"Oh!" she said, sounding surprised to see a tall, thirty-nine-year-old black man in front of her. "I thought you were white."

Ramsey is a chameleon. He sounds like a white guy, and he knows it. After all, he grew up in Berkeley's well-to-do Elmwood neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from the Claremont Hotel. A housing attorney who has served on the West Contra Costa Unified School District for nine years, Ramsey definitely boasts the pedigree of a hill-dweller. He's the son of retired judge Henry Ramsey, a former professor at Cal's law school, and member of the Berkeley City Council in the 1970s. "I'm comfortable hanging out in the hills," he chuckles, "sipping white wine, eating brie and crackers."

He's certainly done a lot of that during his fevered campaign to represent the 14th Assembly District. He needs the votes of white, liberal hill-dwellers if he's going to defeat former Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock and schoolteacher-cum-politician Dave Brown in the March 5 Democratic primary. But Ramsey isn't spending all his time sipping Pinot Grigio and taking in panoramic bay views. He's also visiting black churches nearly every Sunday. He's counting on African-American neighborhoods in Berkeley and Richmond to serve as his campaign foundation.

Throughout the state, black candidates like Ramsey must both transcend race and embrace it if they're going to win. Ramsey's effort to defy odds and demographics says a lot about state of black politics in the new California.

The 14th Assembly District is not a black district. More than half its voting-age population is white, and less than sixteen percent of the district's population is African American. It is a liberal district. Nearly sixty percent of its registered voters are Democrats, and only eighteen percent are registered Republicans. Each of the three candidates in the race has tried to carve out his or her own niche in the district, which spans the I-80 corridor from Emeryville to San Pablo and crosses the hills to incorporate Orinda, Lafayette, and Moraga.

Hancock has conducted a safe front-runner's campaign showcasing her daring poll-tested platform, "The Three Es": Education, economy, and environment. Hancock hopes to carry her Berkeley hometown, which includes the race's largest municipal voting bloc even though most of the district is now in Contra Costa County. Brown, the least known of the three, has spent most of his energy working the Contra Costa suburbs and trying to tap into commuter angst, in part by championing improvements to the Caldecott Tunnel.

Ramsey also is preaching inclusive themes such as public education and health care. He promotes his service as a board member of Planned Parenthood and stresses his political pedigree. So far, he has raised more than $340,000 -- topping both his rivals -- by putting together an impressive, if not always politically correct, coalition of organized labor, landlord groups, and businesses such as Pacific Gas & Electric. To show off his range of support, Ramsey often boasts of having the endorsement of both Maudelle Shirek and Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, a moderate favorite of Berkeley hills dwellers. About the only thing that Shirek and Dean usually agree upon is what time city council meetings are scheduled to start.

But as Ramsey recites his pre-chewed campaign themes, the specter of race hangs over his candidacy. He often reminds reporters, "This campaign is not about race." But of course, it is; race permeates American politics, and it can't help but be an issue at a time when African Americans perceive their political influence dwindling in California.

Consider these statistics: Number of African Americans holding statewide office: Zero. Number of African Americans from Northern California in the 120-member state Legislature: Zero. Number of African Americans in the 52-member California Congressional delegation: Four. Number of elected African-American supervisors in the state's 58 counties: Five.

Ramsey is well aware of these trends, but doesn't seem to pay them much attention. He's not comfortable playing the race card. Asked if he prefers the term "black" or "African American," he answers, "I prefer 'Charles'."

A chameleon.

But the chameleon knows he's under a tinted microscope. "African Americans around the state," he says, "are watching this race."


Three weeks before the primary, Ramsey is spending a Friday afternoon walking a working-class Berkeley flatland neighborhood with Warren Widener, Berkeley's first black mayor. The two men are knocking on doors along the 2300 block of Browning Street, the block where Widener lived in the 1970s when he served on the Berkeley City Council with Charles' dad. Today's Berkeley is a lot different than it was in Widener's day.

Since 1970, Berkeley's black population has shrunk from 26,800 to 15,685. Many of the city's African-American residents have cashed in and sold their homes and moved elsewhere -- the suburbs. The 2000 census showed that, for the first time, Asians outnumbered blacks in Berkeley.

Still, as Widener makes the rounds on his old block, a lot of remaining old-timers recognize their former neighbor. But they don't know the lanky young man in the double-breasted charcoal suit with cellphone at the ready. "This is Henry Ramsey's son," Widener says, introducing one resident to Charles. "As bright as Henry is, this young man is even brighter."

Within twenty minutes, Widener and Ramsey persuade four homeowners to put up campaign lawn signs, which is not bad. "I've known the family a long time," Widener says, clutching Ramsey campaign material that includes a bookmark adorned with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. "But even if I hadn't known him I would be involved in this race, because I think that there should at least be one African American in the Senate and the Assembly from Northern California."

Insiders expected Widener to back Ramsey -- after all, they're cut from the same mainstream liberal Democratic cloth. Widener and Henry Ramsey represented the conservative, business-friendly wing of Berkeley politics, and they often tangled with Hancock and her progressive compatriots in the process. Charles has followed in their philosophical footsteps, earning the backing of the Berkeley Democratic Club and the Berkeley Property Owners' Association.

But insiders didn't expect tried-and-true lefties such as Shirek and former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport -- forever infamous for his trips to Communist Cuba -- to back a landlord attorney who views rent control skeptically and opposes laws that make it harder for property owners to evict tenants. Ramsey's landlord ties didn't play well with Shirek's and Newport's old progressive cronies in Berkeley Citizens Action, which endorsed Hancock and attacked Ramsey for representing landlords who evict low-income tenants. Ramsey got so annoyed at BCA's February 5 endorsement meeting that he stormed out before the membership cast its vote.

But like Widener, both Shirek and Newport cite the need for more black representation in the Legislature when explaining their support for Ramsey.

"Generally speaking, running against a reactionary conservative, yeah, I'd endorse Loni," Newport says. "But I've had a lot of talks with Ramsey, I've talked to people in Richmond. He's done a real good job on the [West Contra Costa] board of education. And the fact is, we've lost any representation of color in the state Legislature -- especially in Northern California."


The East Bay demonstrated long ago that it will send black politicians to Sacramento or Washington. Thirty years ago, Ron Dellums harnessed antiwar sentiment and put together an impressive coalition of dissidents and disillusioned Democrats to topple Congressman Jeffrey Cohelan, a white liberal Democrat who they viewed as tardy in his denunciation of the war in Vietnam. Dellums became an icon in both progressive and black political spheres, and helped progressive black protégés such as Keith Carson and Barbara Lee get elected to public office.

In the past few years, however, black legislative candidates from the East Bay -- with the notable exception of Lee, who benefited from Dellums' backing in her effort to succeed him -- haven't had much luck moving up the ladder. Carson, a county supervisor, came third in a three-way race for the state senate, losing to Don Perata. And Elihu Harris, who served two terms as mayor of Oakland and had previously served in the Assembly, suffered a stunning defeat in the race for Assembly District 16 to Green Party nominee Audie Bock, as white liberals from Piedmont and Alameda went for the reform-minded candidate. Bock later lost her seat to Wilma Chan.

African-American leadership has dwindled so precipitously that black leaders such as Elihu Harris and Mary King used to hold regular meetings at Geoffrey's Inner Circle on how to pick a new black mayoral candidate. "We're going to have to do a better job than we've done in the last five to ten years of understanding each other, and forming coalitions from white to Native American and everybody in between," argues Carson. "We haven't done a good job of that."

But Northern California isn't solely to blame for electing fewer black folk these days. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank in Washington DC, black representation has been on the decline in California since 1985. The number of black elected officials in the state peaked that year at 296. By 1999, that number had dwindled to just 237. On the other hand, black political power is on the rise nationally. Between 1980 and 1998, black representation rose by 80.5 percent, center spokeswoman Liselle Yorke says.

The changes in California can be explained primarily by changing demographics. While the percentage of California's population that is black has stayed steady since 1990 at about seven percent of the state's overall population, Asian and Latino populations are booming, with Latinos now constituting one third of the state's population. The state Capitol reflects their increased voting power: The Latino Caucus boasts twenty-two members while the Legislative Black Caucus has only six, all from districts with large black populations in and near Los Angeles. Cruz Bustamante is lieutenant governor.

With California demographics now working against African-American candidates, Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley, argues that African-American candidates need to form broad-based coalitions -- like the kind Dellums forged way back when. "For the most part, African-American representatives in the past were being elected out of heavily black areas. ... The old strategy is what I call a voting-rights strategy, where you get the courts to construct lines that incorporate a majority African-American area. And that worked very well in the '70s and '80s. Now, they have to move beyond the voting-rights strategy to something more sophisticated, more multiracial."

In other words, black candidates need to be chameleons.


Sitting at the conference table in his downtown Oakland law office, Ramsey is frantically dialing for dollars to spend on the final lap of his campaign. There's only three weeks left until the March 5 Democratic primary. Unfortunately, today is the Friday before a long President's Day weekend. Three-day weekends are the enemy of political candidates everywhere because voters and campaign contributors go out of town -- often leaving early Friday. The conference table is smothered with legal motions, campaign papers, and stacks upon stacks of business cards, which Ramsey collects like some kids collect baseball cards. There's also one appliance: a telephone.

Ramsey is legendary among his colleagues for his fundraising exploits on behalf of the bond campaigns for a school district that has filed seven consecutive balanced budgets since filing for bankruptcy shortly before he took a board seat. Trustee Karen Fenton says that if Ramsey gets a financial commitment "he'll be at your door the next morning to pick up the check." A prominent East Bay businessman who has said had to say "no" to Ramsey on multiple occasions concedes, "The one thing about Ramsey is he's definitely persistent."

But today even his persistence isn't paying off. "Shit, I'm not having any luck," Ramsey mutters now after he strikes out for what seems like the umpteenth time trying to contact a potential campaign donor.

As Ramsey dials another number on his shortlist, he sifts through the paperwork in front of him, looking for luck. He retrieves a fundraising missive recently sent on his behalf by Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood), the endorsement chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. The caucus is backing Ramsey in hopes of enlarging its modest delegation of six lawmakers in the state Legislature.

The caucus might be small, but it still plays a big role in helping its favorite sons with direct donations and advertising paid for by its various independent expenditure committees -- which unlike candidates, can accept contributions of any amount. Those committees gladly take money from sources that many East Bay politicians won't touch anymore, such as Big Tobacco. For instance, the Black Leadership PAC received a $50,000 donation from Philip Morris in October as well as a $10,000 check from Enron.

Black caucus chair Rod Wright, an Assemblyman from South Central Los Angeles, is cagey about his plans for the 14th Assembly District race and other elections he's targeting around the state. "We're working on several things, but I don't want to say in the newspaper," he says. "But as they say on that commercial, 'Watch your mailbox'."

Wright has the unenviable task of figuring out which races the caucus should focus on. He thinks African Americans have a good shot of picking up a few seats in the Assembly in districts not currently held by black politicians. In San Diego, George Stevens, a popular city council member, has solid name ID but not a lot of money. In San Francisco, Steve Phillips could sneak in if his three opponents split the gay vote. And, of course, he's got high hopes that Charles Ramsey will pull an upset.

"In the grand scheme of things," Wright says, "you're going to have to be able to become successful in districts where you're able to cross racial boundaries."

While the backing of the black caucus helps, Ramsey knows it's not nearly enough to guarantee victory for him -- or any other black candidate in the new California. So he's put together a broad-based coalition that has forced Hancock to keep an eye on him in her rear-view mirror. For instance, Ramsey scored the endorsements of Latino heavyweights such as Bustamante, state Senator Richard Polanco, and Marco Firebaugh, the inside favorite to be the next speaker of the Assembly. But most importantly, Ramsey's got organized labor behind him.

As a school board member, Ramsey shrewdly ingratiated himself to local labor leaders by championing a union-backed labor agreement for building new school facilities with bond money. He's lined up a formidable list of labor backers, including the Contra Costa Central Labor Council AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union state council. But being nice to the unions wasn't the only reason Ramsey won their support. Race also played a critical role.

Contra Costa Labor Council chief John Dalrymple, who briefly considered running for the Assembly seat himself, says, "Many of our members raised the issue of diversity" as a reason to back Ramsey. An Alameda County SEIU operative who asked not to be named said Hancock had widespread union support, particularly from Local 535, but that race helped Ramsey carry the day with union members -- especially African Americans. "They saw this articulate black man and they went for him. It's as simple as that."

Ramsey considers the SEIU endorsement his biggest coup. Six years ago, SEIU precinct-walkers and phone-bankers helped elect current District 14 Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, who has anointed Hancock as her would-be successor.

While the SEIU endorsement is no doubt a big score for Ramsey, he arguably scored an even bigger coup when he landed the support of Oakland's police union. After all, Oakland cops were the ones who arrested him a few years earlier in an undercover sting.


This isn't the first time Ramsey has tried to run for the Assembly. In 1995, Ramsey formed a campaign committee to position himself for the seat then being vacated by longtime incumbent Tom Bates -- who happens to be Loni Hancock's husband. Things were rolling along when Ramsey abruptly withdrew from the race in mid-June near the time his wife, Donna, gave birth to their second daughter. At first, Ramsey cryptically cited "personal reasons" for his sudden withdrawal.

Later it came out what those "personal reasons" were. On June 13, 1995, Oakland police arrested Ramsey after soliciting an undercover cop posing as a prostitute on the 3600 block of Market Street. He later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of disturbing the peace.

It looked as if Ramsey's political career was finished. But he survived. During his 1997 school board re-election campaign he sent out an apology letter and asked voters to forgive him. They did. The victory restored Ramsey's confidence and convinced him that he still could seek higher office. But the 14th Assembly District is a much bigger stage than the West Contra Costa school board, and Ramsey knows it. This is a tougher race with little margin for error -- or scandal.

"The solicitation," as Ramsey now refers to it, might be ignored if he were running in a disproportionately black district, where voters are typically more inclined to forgive their leaders' personal transgressions (think Marion Barry, or even Bill Clinton). But no one, including Ramsey, knows for sure how it will be received in the progressive 14th District, where even scruffy male college students tend to think of themselves as feminists.

Early on in the campaign, Ramsey decided to come clean about the solicitation with campaign backers and even during candidate debates. It wasn't simply for the sake of full disclosure. Ramsey didn't want his opponents to define him. Lately, he's tended to omit the mea culpa from his stump speeches, but the subject still comes up.

After a recent debate before the Cal Democrats at UC Berkeley, a skinny freshman kid named Eric Anthony came up to Ramsey after the debate. He wondered how Ramsey managed to get the endorsement of Oakland's police union. Ramsey explained that Oakland cops forgave him for his screwup, as his own wife and family had done before them. "People should be given a second chance," he said. Anthony nodded, but appeared dissatisfied with the answer.

Ramsey was quizzical. "What's the point of your question?"

"I was just curious," the student said. "If I were a police officer in Oakland I wouldn't want to endorse someone arrested in Oakland." Then he added, "I have a higher moral standard."

"What am I supposed to do?" Ramsey fired back. "Bury myself in a hole and not help people? ... Who have I hurt?"

Pause. "Women."

"How have I hurt women?" Ramsey demanded. Before he can get an answer, his campaign "body man," Adam Sonenshein, nervously nudged the candidate. But Ramsey couldn't let it go. He went on, asking rhetorically if Barbara Lee had bad judgment because she'd endorsed him. Finally, the confrontation fizzled.

Later, Ramsey is asked how often he is confronted about the hooker thing on the campaign trial. "Every day," he says, shaking his head.


For several months before the filing deadline to run for office, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others on the left searched to find a viable progressive female "person of color" to run for the 14th District Assembly seat. They hoped to persuade black poet June Jordan to run, but Jordan wasn't interested. Then Loni Hancock, Lee's erstwhile progressive ally, returned early from an extended European vacation and announced her candidacy. That left Ramsey as the only black Democrat in the race.

Despite being the campaign's resident minority-group member, Ramsey is also its resident "establishment" candidate -- one who boasts the backing of Big Labor, big corporations, the California Chamber of Commerce, and landlord groups.

It's certainly not the first time in this area in which a black candidate has been the so-called establishment candidate. A quarter of a century ago, Charles' dad, Henry, was part of the hillside, establishment wing of the Berkeley City Council. In the era after the Vietnam War, local political alliances typically have formed along ideological and not racial lines.

But there's a hint of desperation now among black Bay Area leaders that didn't exist a decade ago, when Elihu Harris was mayor of Oakland, Barbara Lee sat in the state Assembly, and Ron Dellums was about to become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The prospects for elevating black faces to high places seem to grow dimmer every year.

Jerry Brown is expected to win a second term as mayor of Oakland as Don Perata, another white guy, waits in the wings for his turn. Wilma Chan occupies Barbara Lee's old Assembly seat, and Perata represents the state Senate district Lee once served. Lee now bears the unwanted distinction of being the East Bay's token African-American representative in either the Legislature or Congress, which is perhaps why she feels so conflicted about the upcoming Assembly election.

Lee hedged her bets and endorsed both her old pal Hancock and Ramsey. Lee says she followed the recommendation of her informal endorsement advisory committee, which was split between members who felt she should back a progressive and those who wanted an African American in the Legislature. Another Dellums protégé, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, also has endorsed both candidates. Just four years ago, Carson ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in a campaign that stressed the need for more diversity in the state capitol.

Charles Ramsey could be the East Bay's best opportunity to send an African American to the Legislature for at least another six years. Proposition 45, if passed, would allow district residents to petition the state to let their incumbent legislators serve another four years. Since Alameda County voters always have despised term limits, Don Perata and Wilma Chan could remain locked in to their respective Oakland Senate and Assembly seats until 2008 and 2010.

Ramsey knows all the numbers. But he insists that this campaign isn't about race. He prefers Charles, remember? But if you want to vote for him because he's black, well, he certainly wouldn't discourage you.

Because, ultimately, he really would prefer being known as Assemblyman Ramsey.

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