The Black Candidate 

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

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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.

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