Talk Transcript: Wolffe on Obama and Race

When Cory Booker first ran for Newark city council in 1998, one of his opponents, George Branch, said, "[Booker's] a Rhodes scholar; I'm a roads scholar." The implication was not just that Booker lacked street smarts—it's that he wasn't quite black enough. In 2002, when Booker first ran for mayor of Newark, N.J., against Sharpe James, who had been in office since 1986, James operatives launched a whispering campaign that Booker was a tool of Jewish financiers—and that Booker, who was raised Methodist but attends a Baptist church, was Jewish. (James did not respond to a request for comment.)

Booker, elected mayor last fall after James finally retired, tries to rise above the nastiness and stereotyping. "I remember joking with friends of mine about me being a vegetarian, and them saying, "Oh, that's going to be an issue. In the black community, people want you to sit down and have some ribs," Booker laughed, recalling the story to a NEWSWEEK reporter. "And I said, 'I am who I am,' you know. I did the Popeye thing."

Booker, 38, is one of several rising young, black politicians who, like Barack Obama, represent a "sea change in black politics," says Artur Davis, a third-term black congressman who represents Alabama's Seventh district. Booker and Davis, like three other successful black pols NEWSWEEK interviewed—Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown—ran mainstream campaigns appealing to all races, stressing consensus and competence, and often forging close ties with the business community. They see themselves as breakthrough figures. Black politicians can now "routinely" aspire to election as senators or governors "without that being dismissed as an absurdity," says Davis. In Massachusetts, which is only 6 percent black, Patrick, who has been both a corporate lawyer and head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, won with 56 percent of the vote. In D.C., which is slightly more than half black, Fenty carried every voting district, including the heavily white ones.

Fenty rejected racial politics. "During the campaign, people would come up to me and say, 'You've got to focus on the base,' whatever they thought that was," Fenty tells NEWSWEEK. He has eschewed the time-honored practice, in white as well as black communities, of handing out patronage along racial or ethnic lines. And he has been criticized by some blacks in Washington for appointing nonblack police, fire and school chiefs.

The race factor has hardly gone away. When Davis, a former prosecutor, first unsuccessfully challenged Earl Hilliard, the longtime representative from Alabama's Seventh District, in 2000, Hilliard said, "The only thing Davis ever did for black people was to put them in jail." (There was no official response at the time, says a Davis spokesman.) More recently, Davis recalls, he got a phone call from a white constituent who said, "I'm for you as long as you don't side with the blacks all the time." Even more difficult, these pols say, is combating the media's tendency to oversimplify by labeling them "postracial" politicians (a term they all reject) and by casting them in opposition to their political forebears. "We're the beneficiaries of a lot of trailblazing and hard work and sacrifice from African-Americans who came before," says Brown of Maryland (who, like Obama and Fenty, is biracial).

The new generation—at 51, Patrick is the oldest of the five—knows they've been helped by integration and affirmative action. Booker graduated from Stanford and Yale Law and Patrick and Davis both graduated from Harvard. Booker, who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, says his father used to say that the Bookers were "the raisins on top of the ice cream." "I luxuriate in black humor and black food and music, but for me, it's a portal to transport myself into a deeper understanding of humanity," says Booker, the Popeye who can sound like a philosopher king. "Lincoln has a wonderful quote where he says that everyone is born an original, but sadly most men die copies. I don't want to die a copy." Booker is not a copy, but he could be a model.