A new class of black lawmakers Less rhetoric, more results expected

January 29, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The same political winds that swept the nation's first baby boomer into the White House also lofted a new class of black lawmakers onto Capitol Hill.

Unlike the wave of black preachers and social activists who arrived in Washington more than 20 years ago, the new group of African-American lawmakers is long on legislative experience and more closely attuned to the needs of constituents. As a result, they are expected to generate less rhetoric but more results.

"We are a new generation," boasted Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., one of the 16 black freshmen members of congress.

Many of the earlier black lawmakers were quick to brandish the angry language of street activism, and were not as inclined to engage in the give-and-take that gets bills passed and keeps constituents happy.

Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department, said the election of this year's freshman class signals a "break with the tradition of black [congressional] leaders as protest leaders."

"The nature of the [black] politicians coming in is very different," said Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., who was elected to Congress last November after serving several terms in the Maryland General Assembly. "We are attuned to constituent services as a pragmatic component of our political careers."

As a result of last November's elections, the number of black lawmakers has increased by roughly half. In the House, the roster has grown to 38, not counting the Mississippi seat being vacated by newly confirmed Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. In the Senate, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois is the first black since Republican Edward Brooke left in 1979.

The new black members of the 103rd Congress readily `f acknowledge that they represent the fruit of fallen barriers to black voting rights and legislative redistricting, which created 13 new black-majority districts in the South last year. Three other black newcomers replaced retiring or defeated black incumbents.

"Reapportionment was the tool by which we could increase the numbers of women, minorities, blacks across the country," said Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., one of the blacks elected among the newcomers. "That's why reapportionment is so good."

While the black newcomers share much in common with their more experienced black colleagues, as a group they tend to possess several distinguishing characteristics:

* Most of the newcomers are from largely rural or suburban

communities across the South, rather than the urban areas of the North and Midwest. Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia sent their first blacks to Congress since Reconstruction.

* Only one of the newcomers -- Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., an attorney and a former federal judge -- had never held elective office before.

By contrast, two of every three black congressional incumbents won their first election when they were sent to Capitol Hill.

"For us, coming to Washington is like moving from the minors to the majors," said Mr. Bishop. "It's a bigger place, but the principles are the same. We didn't just fall off the truck."

* As evidenced by their past legislative experiences, the new representatives are anxious to pass laws that return dividends to their constituents. They are less content to simply score rabble-rousing points on behalf of favored social causes.

In a recently published history of blacks in Congress, "Just Permanent Interests," Mr. Clay writes that the arrival of five new black members in 1971, increasing caucus membership to 12, "brought additional pressure to bear on the black members of Congress for militancy, if not outright radicalism."

The new class of black lawmakers brings a more mainstream approach.

"They came with an agenda, not looking for an agenda," said Howard University's Walters. "And, by their backgrounds and past experiences, they very much fit the pattern of the other members of Congress."

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