A New Kind Of Race

He takes it as a given that demography is destiny; and in the movie in his mind this particular truth has a sound. It is the roar of a mighty river that once was a shallow stream. For Roberto Ramirez, former Bronx Democratic chief, the soundtrack is part of a glorious vision in which black and Latino voters, once marginalized, coalesce into an irresistible political force. It is a vision so obvious, so inevitable, that he marvels that more do not see it. "These constituencies step forward at the same time. And for the first time in my life, I see a coalition of equal partners, with equal contributions to make."

Ramirez's dream may not have the poignancy of the one made so famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, but it has sufficient power to fuel this portion of his political life. Ramirez was a principal in the spirited, though ultimately failed, campaign last year to make Fernando Ferrer New York City's first Latino mayor, and he is now engaged in the fight to make Carl McCall New York state's first black governor. And if one suggests that the age of ethnic politics may be over, Ramirez begs to disagree. "Absolutely, ethnicity matters," he argues, no less so than in the day when a long-suffering Irish community asserted itself by putting its own politicians in power.

But something much more complicated is taking place than new groups playing out the old ethnic politics. Americans are gingerly moving away from the old racial comfort zones, from the way of thinking that limited minority politicians to secondary roles.

Not so long ago, blacks were about as rare in a statewide elective office as snowflakes in a desert. Now there are 33, according to a count by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (Nine elected Latinos serve statewide, says the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.) And there are certain to be many more. This is the year when Democrats put together a so-called political dream team in Texas, running Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Latino businessman, for governor (Sanchez's primary opponent was also Latino) and Ron Kirk, a black former mayor of Dallas, for the Senate. Two Latino men are facing off to become governor of New Mexico and two black women are competing to become lieutenant governor of Ohio. In total, 14 blacks are running statewide as major-party nominees, according to the Joint Center. NALEO counts 14 Latinos, many of them incumbents, running statewide.

The numbers reflect, in part, the growing power of black and Latino electorates. Texas and New Mexico have large and growing Latino populations. But the statewide candidates are not running ethnic campaigns. Instead they are trying to get across the message that they will provide leadership for everyone--not just for others of their kind. That reflects their awareness that no minority candidate can win statewide office if his or her support is confined to an ethnic ghetto. But it also reflects a rejection of the old minority role.

A new breed of politicians is emerging, one "not shackled by the philosophy and rules of the past," says John Lewis, a civil-rights hero and congressman from Georgia. Black politicians under the age of 40 are, in some respects, more like their white peers than their black elders. According to the Joint Center's research, they are much more likely to have gone to integrated schools, less likely to belong to civil-rights organizations, significantly better educated and, apparently, more ambitious.

"We share experiences, regardless of race, far more than previous generations," says Harold Ford Jr., 32, a second-generation Tennessee congressman. As a result, they are more likely to share aspirations, and perhaps even a vision. "There is no black way to make money, no Latino way to lose money." There are simply problems, as he sees it, that generally go beyond race.

None of this means race is no longer a factor. Putting together the kinds of coalitions that will carry minority candidates into statewide office continues to be difficult. Those who succeed have to reach out to broader constituencies while holding onto the ethnic base. The juggling act can be wearisome. "Why can't we just be excellent candidates?" asks Gabriela Lemus of the League of United Latin America Citizens.

Joint Center president Eddie Williams has another worry. He fears that some of the new breed will be disconnected from useful values of the past. And he wonders whether older politicians may be partially to blame. "To what extent have they gone out of their way to mentor and make understudies of the blacks coming up?" he asks.

Once upon a time, if politicians belonged to ethnic minority groups, they had little choice but to make themselves out to be champions of their people and little more. That is no longer quite so true. Maybe that means, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. argues, that "America is becoming better." If we are finally reaching the point where appealing to a broader constituency doesn't mean short-changing those whom that broader constituency never cared for in the past, Jackson may indeed be right.