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The ‘Visible Power’ of Black Lawmakers

A total of eight African Americans are serving as the top chamber leaders in state legislatures. Meanwhile, the fallout from an Oregon Supreme Court ruling that barred some state senators from seeking re-election won't be as great as you might think.

Joe Tate
Joe Tate became Michigan’s first African American state House speaker last year. (Photo Courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)
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The ‘Visible Power’ of Black Lawmakers: Growing up in Detroit, Joe Tate never dreamed he would become a legislator, let alone the first African American speaker of the Michigan House. Tate’s father died while he was still an infant. That imbued him with a desire to serve, which he achieved first in the military and now in government. “What we do in Lansing obviously affects everything across the state,” Tate says. “I bring my perspective and my experience to say here are opportunities to create policies for communities like the one I grew up in.”

Tate is among a record number of Black legislative leaders serving at the moment. A total of eight African Americans are serving as the top chamber leaders in state Houses or Senates, while another five are leading Democratic caucuses. “The African American leaders are being elected because they’re talented, not because they’re part of a group,” says Tim Storey, the CEO of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Still, he adds, “The increase in diversity among leaders is a reflection of a growing diversity in legislatures and where the country is headed.”

The total number of Black legislators has remained flat for a decade or more, but Black lawmakers play an outsized role within Democratic caucuses and often represent safe districts that allow them to accrue seniority. Some of the leaders have fairly standard political backgrounds. Pennsylvania Speaker Joanna McClinton, for instance, was a public defender before joining the House, while Illinois Speaker Chris Welch served on a school board for a dozen years before becoming a state representative. But others are unusual. Tate, for instance, was an offensive lineman in the NFL, while James Beverly, the Democratic leader in the Georgia House, is an eye doctor by trade. “There was nobody on this planet, including myself, who thought I would be the leader,” Beverly says.

This generation of leaders, mostly in their 40s and 50s, is well aware that others paved the way for their success. “When I was growing up in Baltimore, you were expected to get an education and provide for your family,” Beverly says, “but you also had an obligation to your community – what can I do to serve?”

It wasn’t so long ago that African Americans were unable to count on being able to cast a vote, let alone get elected or serve as a top leader. Representation matters. “Democratic caucuses generally support issues that are important to their coalition members without actual African American votes in the chamber,” says Robert Preuhs, who chairs the political science department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But many of those issues are either not brought to the fore or may miss important frames in which they are understood by the African American community.”

Now, a record number of African Americans not only have a seat at the table, but are sitting at its very head. The “visible power” these leaders now command, Preuhs says, signals to Black citizens throughout their states that they have a real voice in the political process.

“State legislators craft policy that makes the biggest impact on people’s day-to-day lives,” says Heather Williams, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, “which is why it’s so important that we elect leaders whose lived experience truly represents their constituents.”

Tim Knopp
Tim Knopp, who leads the Oregon Republican Senate caucus, is barred from seeking a fourth term. (Beth Nakamura/OregonLive/TNS)
New Leaders Coming in Oregon: At the beginning of February, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 10 Republican senators could not run for re-election. They had violated a law, enacted at the ballot box, which disqualifies senators who have more than 10 unexcused absences from running again. That’s fully a third of the chamber membership. Despite this, the fallout won’t be as great as you might think, although it will certainly lead to a change at the top of GOP leadership.

In recent years, Republican senators have repeatedly blocked liberal legislation by failing to show up at the capitol, depriving the Democratic majority of the necessary quorum. That’s what prompted the ballot measure. The GOP senators argued that the law was not supposed to take effect right away and they should be able to serve more time. They weren’t successful (although two of the senators have a separate challenge pending at the federal level), but it turns out that most of them will be able to stick around for a while longer anyway.

The law bars them from running for re-election, but they do get to serve out their current terms. Due to staggered terms, that means only four of the 10 are up for re-election this November. Two others have already decided to retire.

They all prepared. “Every single one of the senators who was up for re-election had already handpicked who their successor was, and made that public in case they couldn’t run,” says Jim Moore, a political scientist at Pacific University. That doesn’t mean the handpicked successors will all win, but there won’t be a mad scramble to recruit candidates ahead of next month’s filing deadline. In two cases, senators are seeking to anoint family members.

In most cases, whoever wins the May GOP primary will win election to the Senate, since most of the seats are safe for the party. There’s one notable exception. Tim Knopp, the GOP leader, represents a growing district in the Bend area that’s turned increasingly purple. He might have had a tough time winning re-election even if he were able to run, says Dick Hughes, a columnist for Oregon Capital Insider. Without an incumbent, the seat will be even more vulnerable.

And then there’s the question of who will succeed Knopp as the party leader in the Senate. The involuntary departures will mean a good deal of turnover within GOP ranks, with two of the most conservative members – Brian Boquist and Dennis Linthicum – having to leave this year as well. “You have people jockeying for leadership,” Hughes says. “Tim Knopp was really sharp and has been around a long time. It will be tough for anyone to fill his shoes.”

So far this session, Knopp has not signaled that he’s planning to lead yet another walkout, but clearly that option is available. If Republicans are convinced that Democrats have gone too far, they can go ahead and deprive them of a quorum once again. After all, they’ve already paid the political and legal price.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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