The Black Candidate 

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

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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.

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