For newly elected African American mayors, the latest political delicacy on the electoral menu is putting a disingenuous lid on their Blackness. Not saying that they are straight denying who they are, but recent trends suggest a sign-of-the-times move and 21st century motivation. Political survival dictates the need for new black mayors to not be as … well … black. This is certainly the case in spots like Denver, Jacksonville and Washington, D.C.
It’s all in the messaging. Interestingly enough, recently victorious candidates of color seem pressed to go out of their way on neo-racial reconciliation. It’s a somewhat unbalanced pickle black candidates are forced into as compared to their white counterparts. The victory lap is short-lived, and rather than get on with the business of next policy steps, it seems like a significant amount of time is spent on messages of “unity” and being “one” or “coming together.” It’s touchy-feely, warm-fuzzy branding that can negate the toughness and roll-up-the-sleeves approach that’s needed in these tight recessionary times as municipalities struggled to recover.
Here we have three major U.S. cities, of which two are the largest in two different Presidential battleground states. Denver in the West. Jacksonville in the South. Washington, D.C. in the East. The political dynamics in each offer some clues into how the next national election cycle will turn out. But, the racial dimensions will also underscore what happens in 2012 as the country’s first black President attempts to pull it off a second time.
Former City Council President Michael Hancock (D) handily whipped State Senator Chris Romer (D) by a more-than-convincing 13 point run-off spread. Yet, Hancock finds himself forced to push the racial reconciliation chord, now Denver’s second black mayor in a city of 600,000 that is only 10 percent black. Striking the right code wording to soothe the nervousness of white Denverites (who constitute nearly 65% of the population), Hancock’s transition is immersed in bringing “Denver Together.”
Alvin Brown (D), now Jacksonville, Florida’s first African American and Democratic mayor, finds himself in a similar messaging predicament. The orange farm state’s largest city is 60 percent white in a Southern area well known for its seedy racist past (and, in some cases, present). But, Brown was able to shape a multi-racial coalition clumsily strung together by the city’s 30 percent black population, just barely walking into an ugly win that had him ahead by only eight tenths of a percentage point (we should note here that turnout was 38 percent). Before the last ballots were even counted, there was talk of “unifying” the city and “representing all of Jacksonville.”
Current Washington, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray (D) hasn’t had enough bandwidth to focus on governing the nation’s capitol, much less bridge its gentrified divides together in any meaningful way. He’s busy embroiled in a mountain of scandal which will not only ensure his seeing just one term, but may also open the door for “Chocolate City’s” first white Mayor in the near future. But, his contentious battle royale primary against one-term incumbent Adrian Fenty (D) in 2010 left the city in a charred racial state, with its barely 50 percent black majority using the election as a way to bite back at a growing population of gentrifying white yuppies. Gray’s solution: a cheesy logo and knock-off map of the District of Columbia surrounded by Ward stars and the phrase “One City.” Go to dc.gov, and you’re still accosted by the pure ugliness of it.
Suddenly, black mayor is more like cultural therapist in cardigan mending to racially wounded city on the couch. But, when is the business of the city getting done? Are you knuckling up and making deals to balance budgets, repair crumbling schools and find jobs for the unemployed? Or are you caught up in a tiresome, fake replay of Invictus? Here, Morgan Freeman’s grand portrayal of post-apartheid South African President Nelson Mandela is knee-capped by catering to bruised white feelings. Hence, the movie shows him spending more time on ensuring rugby World Cup championship than on the country’s alarming poverty crisis and skyrocketing AIDS rates. In the case of these three cities, recovery is still unseen by many of their black residents. They might be more interested in what these three men can do about that.
Charles D. Ellison is Chief Political Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, author of the critically-acclaimed urban political thriller TANTRUM and a nationally recognized, frequently featured expert on politics.