WASHINGTON — A 41-YEAR-OLD black lawyer and six-term legislator has won the Democratic nomination for speaker of the North Carolina House, just a month after Sen. Jesse Helms exploited the race issue to defeat ex-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.
With the majority of Democrats for him, Daniel T. Blue Jr., is virtually assured election when the legislature meets next month. He will become the first black speaker of a Southern state since Reconstruction. He joins a very small club of black speakers. The other member: California's powerful Willie Brown.
Quality and skill clearly carried Mr. Blue to his December 7 victory in the Democratic caucus. The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research rated him one of the 10 most effective legislators in each of his terms. The agenda he's carried -- election and criminal-code reform, money for mass transit -- has been broad-gauged.
Mr. Blue is a mainstream politician in the mold of Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder, the South's first black governor of the 20th century. And while he's black, Mr. Blue makes little of it. In his acceptance speech to the caucus, he talked about bringing together ''young and old, urban and rural, coastal and plain, Piedmont and mountain, rich and poor.'' Notice the omission: blacks and whites.
The harsh fact, of course, is that elective gains by blacks and Hispanics have been painfully slow.
Black contenders made rapid gains after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. From less than 200 nationwide, the total of black elected officials went to nearly 1,500 in five years. Now it's close to 8,000, but the growth has slowed. Blacks gained just 25 seats in legislative elections this fall -- to 440 out of 7,466 state seats. That's 5.9 percent in a country that's 11.1 percent black.
Statewide breakthroughs come even tougher. In the 50 states, only five blacks hold statewide constitutional office. One is Illinois' Roland Burris, advanced from Illinois comptroller to attorney general in this fall's elections.
A rule of thumb is that it's the exceptional black who can win in a constituency that's less than 65 percent black.
Hispanics also made big advances after the Voting Rights Act. ** But the latest count gives them 115 legislative seats -- 1.5 percent of the total, even though they're estimated to represent 7.9 percent of the U.S. population. Only in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado do Hispanic legislative numbers come close to population shares. California, the state soonest to have a ''majority of minorities,'' registers some of the lowest numbers.
Still, there are some advances. Pete Rios, just elected president of the Arizona Senate, won with old-fashioned politics: He picked up enough pledges from Democrats running against Republican incumbents that when the Democrats captured the Senate, he was positioned to take the presidency.
The reasons for the slow progress of minorities got a recent airing at a symposium in Charlottesville, Virginia. One is the frequent reluctance of whites to vote for any black -- even a famous black like ex-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who couldn't muster 30 percent of the vote in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Next, most black and Hispanic legislative districts have already been ''taken.'' Minority candidates have a tough time tapping big-time campaign contributions -- especially against long-term white legislators who seem as entrenched in their seats as members of the House of Lords.
The most intriguing question for the early 1990s is what happens if multiple states enact limits on legislators' terms, and perhaps couple that with reform of the campaign-spending system now so egregiously tipped to incumbents. No two developments, you can argue, would do more to open doors for blacks, Hispanics and others now effectively locked out of the process.
There's a counter-argument on term limits: They might knock out minority legislators who've been patiently working their way up the seniority ladders. But career office-holding often leads to self-dealing and walking too close to the ethical edge. How many more lifetime power-wielding politicos do we want, regardless of race? Whatever their faults, term limits would prove an equal-opportunity tool to ensure the system a supply of fresh faces.
But it's not just numbers, it's the smarts of minority legislators that determines their impact on state policy. Like any politician who's ever wanted to make a difference, black and Hispanic legislators need to learn the leadership's agenda, follow the budget, build coalitions and good personal relationships. Just being ''inside the house'' creates an opportunity to influence decisions.
Changing policies takes more. Minorities start as outsiders; they have to work harder than whites to become insiders. One way is to study up on an issue -- whether in education, health, consumer legislation, whatever -- until a black or Hispanic becomes the legislature's top expert, almost indispensable to his or her colleagues.
Expertise of a few is no substitute for the presence of many minorities in legislatures. But both are going to be needed before legislatures pay attention to the massive social and economic needs of blacks and Hispanics.