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.

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