The Black Candidate 

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

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"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.

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