What do Kendrick Meek, Alvin Greene, Mike Thurmond, and C. Anthony Muse have in common?
They are black, male, and all four had hoped to join one of the world’s most elite, select and politically powerful bodies in the world, the U.S. Senate.
They didn’t make it. Meek, Greene, and Thurmond lost their bids for Senate seats in 2010. Muse lost his this year. Their loss gave the U.S. Senate the dubious distinction of being one of the last remaining political bastions in America where blacks are invisible. It has been almost impossible for black Senate candidates to crack the racial ceiling of the U.S. Senate.
Disgraced and imprisoned former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s hotly disputed Illinois senate appointee Roland Burris in 2008 was the last black to hold down a Senate seat. But that was just barely. When the Blagojevich corruption and bribery scandal publicly exploded, the Senate gave hard consideration to giving Burris the boot.
A big factor in the Senate pulling back from going after Burris was that it would have left the Senate — especially moderate and liberal Senate Democrats — wide open to the embarrassing and awkward rap that a bunch of white senators torpedoed the appointment of a black man. But that became a moot issue. Burris declined to run when his truncated term was up and that meant a return to a Senate with no blacks.
That’s not the worst part. The worst is that the odds are good that the Senate will have no African Americans for years to come.
The Senate has sole power to approve a declaration of war, debate treaties, approve nominations to the Supreme Court, decide the guilt or innocence of an impeached president, and put the final stamp on all vital legislation at the national level.
The Founding Fathers made no secret that they wanted the Senate to be an Olympian lawmaking body. James Madison bluntly wrote that the Senate should be the ultimate check to prevent the people from “overwhelming” government.
For nearly 125 years, state legislators elected senators. The 17th Amendment passed in 1913 changed that. But it did not end the Senate’s political insulation and elitism. More than two-dozen senators are millionaires. Many have been in the Senate for decades, and they are virtually impossible to unseat.
The six-year Senate term of office is the longest of any elected body in America. That spares senators the need to continually debate issues and policy decisions directly with voters. It also shields their legislative actions from public scrutiny.
Mississippi is a textbook example of how changing racial demographics has little effect on Senate incumbents. Blacks comprise a third of the state’s population, and more than a quarter of the voters. They are solidly Democratic. Mississippi has one of highest percentage of black delegates at the Democratic convention in 2008. Yet before Trent Lott quit the Senate, he and Thad Cochran had been in the Senate more than four decades.
Senate candidates must raise millions, get their party’s official stamp and appeal to conservative, white middle-class voters to get elected. Senate seats aren’t cheap. Obama raised a record $4 million dollars in a three-month span in his winning Senate effort.
Obama preached a centrist, conservative message of family values, tax fairness and military preparedness and an emphasis of toughness on national security and the war on terrorism. He had to in order to draw support from conservative white Democrat voters and neutralize Republicans in central and downstate Illinois.
But the key was still money, Obama had plenty of it, and that was the clincher. How much did he and do other candidates or incumbents need to run for or hold on to a Senate seat? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2010, the average winning House candidate spent nearly one and a half million dollars to run (not necessarily to win). A Senate seat cost almost 10 times more. The average price to win it soared to nearly $10 million.
The Senate is not unaware that it is a body that is grossly undemocratic and unrepresentative of the country’s racial, ethnic and gender demographics. In fact, senators have been repeatedly asked about their virtually white, rich, and male club. They have either declined to comment or simply issued a template statement that diversity is a good thing for America. But as far as diversity in their body, their silence has been deafening. In the words of one senator, it’s not an issue that’s discussed.
It really wouldn’t matter if it was discussed. The hard fact is that to win a Senate seat is a politically elite-controlled, multi-millionaires derby that excludes just about everyone who doesn’t fit that category, which is just about everybody. The unstated message at least for the foreseeable future is that blacks need not apply for the Senate.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.