Before President Barack Obama joined Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown on stage at a get out the vote rally in Prince George’s County Sunday, Dr. Grainger Browning of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington offered a prayer. Browning thanked God for Obama and he pointed to the historic nature of Brown’s campaign: If elected, Brown would become not just Maryland’s first black governor, but only the third black governor ever elected in the US.
“Just as Doug Wilder became governor, and just as Duval Patrick became governor, we believe that on November he will become governor of this state of Maryland,” Browning told the mostly African-American audience packed into a high school gym.
But when Brown took to the stage alongside the nation’s first African-American president, neither of them noted the potential of history being made. Throughout his campaign, Brown has not talked much about the precedent he’d achieve.
“He’ll reference his biography, his father being from Jamaica, but there isn’t an overt mention of race,” says Towson University political scientist John Bullock. “It’s more-so ‘let’s talk about education, let’s talk about the environment or health care,’ that sort of ‘rising tides, all Marylanders,’”
In order to avoid alienating white voters, African-American candidates often toe a tricky line when talking about race. In the span of one answer in a recent debate, Brown did just that. Asked about how race plays a role in this election, he acknowledged the history he would make, but then pivoted to make a more universal appeal. “Race is important to the extent that the quality of life goals that we achieve ought to be achieved uniformly by all Marylanders regardless of where your family lives, where they’re from, race, ethnicity or nationality,” Brown said.
Only two African-American governors and five black US Senators have ever been elected, which stands at odds with the fact that African Americans have long made up the largest minority in the country (12.6 percent of the population in 2010 according to census data). There are two other African-American governors in US history: Former New York Gov. David Patterson became governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned and Louisiana's P.B.S. Pinchback become governor for 34 days while the incumbent governor faced impeachment.
America’s poor track record electing black politicians to top state-wide offices is partly a reflection of history, says David Bositis, who researches African Americans in politics. Until the Voting Rights Act, states in the South, which have the largest black populations, practically barred African Americans from voting.
“Remember, when John F. Kennedy was elected president, Mississippi, which is the blackest state in the country, only 5.8 percent of the black voters in Mississippi were registered to vote,” Bositis says.
Geography also plays a role, Bositis says: Many states don’t have large black populations. States like North Dakota aren’t likely to have many black politicians run. But in states with larger concentrations of African Americans, whites may not vote for black candidates.
“States that have the largest proportional African American populations are the most polarized,” Bositis says.
Nationwide, more African Americans are on the ballot for state-wide and congressional seats this year than in any year since Reconstruction. But Bositis says that many are “sacrificial lambs” who have little chance of winning.
But Brown remains the frontrunner in Maryland despite an ever-tightening race against Republican Larry Hogan.
Brown’s career is something of a roadmap for political success, says Towson’s John Bullock: He hails from populous Prince George’s County, has a great resume, and got early mentorship from the state’s Democratic leadership. As Gov. Martin O’Malley’s deputy for the last eight years, Brown’s built connections to help fund an expensive state-wide race.
“You’ve got to have those deeper pockets and also a fundraising apparatus,” Bullock says. “And that’s where Brown’s affiliation with O’Malley works out really well.”
On Sunday, after the rally Obama attended in Prince George’s, Terri Dove was jazzed. The high school science teacher said seeing the first black president next to the potential first black governor was a powerful image for her students.
“I want my students to see the possibility of what they can [do] and often you don’t see yourself in a position until you see someone who looks like you,” Dove said. “And so seeing [Brown] in that position is a dream.”
African-American voters like Dove turned out heavily for Obama, twice. Now Brown needs them to turn out for him.