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Why Have There Been So Few Black Governors?

Christopher Connelly

Maryland’s 2014 gubernatorial race is full of potential firsts.

Del. Heather Mizeur could be Maryland’s first female governor and the first openly gay governor in the country. Del. Jolene Ivey, Attorney General Doug Gansler’s running mate, could be Maryland’s first African-American female lieutenant governor.

And, on both sides of the aisle, there are candidates vying to be Maryland’s first African American governor: Democratic Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and Charles Lollar, a Republican business owner.

If either is elected, Maryland will join a very small group of states that have elected black governors. Which begs the question: why have there been so few – only four – African American governors in U.S. history?

  • P. B. S. Pinchback held the office in Louisiana for 34 days in 1872, stepping in while the incumbent governor faced impeachment.

  • Governor Douglas Wilder was the first African-American elected to the office. He served as governor of Virginia from 1990 to 1994.

  • Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has served the state since 2007. He was reelected in 2010.

  • Governor David Paterson of New York took office in 2008 after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation. Paterson served for three years, the remainder of Spitzer’s term.

There also have been only five black Senators, including President Barack Obama and the current lone black Senator, Cory Booker of New Jersey. Noam Scheiber, writing about Booker’s political aspirations, argues:

Because of the reluctance of white voters to support an unknown African American, rookie black pols must typically run for office in majority-black areas, which tend to be very liberal. And this defines them when they seek higher office. The only plausible way to move up is to spend years after that first win constructing a political identity that transcends race or partisanship, or which associates the politician with ideological moderation.

The Wall Street Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Neil King Jr. reached the same conclusion about stalled political progress of African American elected officials. Here are quotes from two of their sources:

  • “‘Representing a primarily black constituency sets you on a political path that makes it hard to recalibrate for a statewide race,’ said Artur Davis, a former Alabama congressman who lost a bid for governor in 2010, and has since left the Democratic Party.”

  • “Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat now in his fourth term, cites money as an impediment. ‘As long as minority congressional members represent districts that tend to be lower income, then your funding base is going to be smaller, which will put you at a dollar disadvantage when you want to run for statewide office,’ he said.”

To overcome the appearance of being “too liberal,” some black Democratic mayors have formed mutually beneficial relationships with GOP governors. Jeffrey Smith points to the relationship between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Booker, who was mayor of Newark.

As for Maryland, some commentators have seen race fade as an issue in the current gubernatorial campaign. Others disagree. Either way, the most current polling, from April, suggests that Brown will become the fifth black governor in U.S. history.