By Julianne Malveaux
Two prominent Black Maryland officials – Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III – have endorsed Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a White, over Black Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards in the race to replace retiring Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski.
So far, Edwards is the only African American in the race and faces the prospect of joining California Attorney General Kamala Harris, an announced candidate for the California Senate seat that will be vacated by Senator Barbara Boxer. Another African American, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, is considering running for the seat that will become vacant in 2017 when Mikulski retires.
This may seem like a local story, but it has national implications. Both Edwards and Van Hollen are likely to seek contributions from all over the country. Furthermore, the possibility of having an African American woman in the Senate is an opportunity for African American women’s issues to be raised on the Senate floor. Finally, Edwards’ presence on committees dealing with work, health care, and banking will bring a much-needed perspective to a Senate that is 96 percent White.
With an African American female Senator, would Loretta Lynch’s confirmation for U.S. Attorney General still be languishing? Or, would Edwards remind fellow senators that their treatment of African American women has hardly been fair? Senator Edwards might also raise issues that impact all women, but African American women especially, given the fact that we have lower incomes, and a higher rate of single motherhood. African American women have also been the targets of disparaging remarks about public assistance and food stamps, as if no Caucasian’s participate in these programs. An African American woman senator would likely raise objections and stop senatorial trash talk about African American women it its tracks.
Why, then, have the highest-ranking elective officers at the county level in Maryland, both African American men, chosen the Caucasian Van Hollen over Edwards? And if they don’t like Edwards for the post, why couldn’t they wait until Cummings decides whether to run?
Baker, who served with Van Hollen in the Maryland General Assembly during the 1990s, says he knows Van Hollen and has worked well with him. He says he has made this endorsement “in the interest of the county.” It has nothing to do with race, he says, but everything to do with familiarity.
In his endorsement, Leggett said, “As we look ahead to build a strong Maryland, we need a proven leader like Congressman Chris Van Hollen, whose reputation for leadership, deep intellect and courage is unrivaled. His swift rise through the ranks in the U.S. House of Representatives attests to the respect and esteem he commands from his colleagues, and from other leaders around this country.”
Neither Baker nor Leggett has explained what makes Van Hollen a better candidate than Edwards. I won’t speculate about whether their choice has something more to do with gender than politics, but I do think their actions raises national questions about race and endorsements.
When all else is equal, I choose to vote for the African American candidate instead of the Caucasian one. The truth is both Edwards and Van Hollen are likely to vote much the way that the liberal Barbara Mikulski did. However, I expect that Edwards will be far more aggressive in advocating for the African American community than Van Hollen.
Further, in light of the recent killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina, Eric Gardner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., among others, it seems specious to say that race doesn’t matter. In light of the double-digit unemployment rates African Americans experience (twice those of Whites), race still matters and the need to target employment programs have not been raised in this Senate, even when Democrats held it. Edwards would be forceful in pushing these programs. Baker especially owes his county an explanation both because it is majority African American (65 percent) and also because his county was critical in electing Edwards to Congress four times.
There has been a blurring of racial lines in our nation and in politics. Increasing numbers of Americans are biracial or multi-racial, and identify with every aspect of their background. Many choose to check the “biracial” on census forms, an option that was unavailable two decades ago. Apparently the “one drop” rule is obsolete, unless a mixed race person collides with the wrong officer of the law. Still, I think that race should matter in endorsements, especially when history is about to be made. Rushern Baker and Isiah Leggett owe their constituents a more substantive explanation than the ones they have offered.
Julianne Malveaux is an economist, writer, and President Emerita of Bennett College. She can be reached at juliannemalveaux.com.