Black Irony

Obama's election was a great victory—except for black officeholders in Tennessee

It is ironic that while America was voting for Barack Obama as its first black president last week, blacks in Knoxville and across Tennessee were suffering losses in political power.

For the last 40 years, Democratic control of the state House of Representatives has relied on a coalition that included the Black Caucus, urban legislators who traded unwavering support for the Speaker in return for a share of government largesse for their districts, either in grants, patronage, or education funding. They got committee chairmanships, leadership positions, and a seat at the table when decisions were made.

State Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, has been a committee chair and one of the most powerful legislators in Nashville. Any legislation important to Knoxville required local Republican officeholders to go hat in hand to ask for Armstrong's help. (Which he was always happy to give.)

The Republicans have now taken over the House and will likely elect their own speaker come January. And they will govern without any obligation to the Black Caucus. Since the Democrats have consistently shut out Republicans for decades, turnabout is likely. None of the new committee chairs are likely to be Democrats, and thus none of them will be members of the Black Caucus. Overnight a cadre of the state's black leaders from Memphis to Knoxville will be as powerless as a back-bench Republican has been for the last 150 years.

Meanwhile, in Knox County, the passage of charter amendment #3 will eliminate another black officeholder. The 1st District's two black County Commissioners will be reduced to one commissioner. Proponents argued the change would be good because, with two countywide commissioners, people in each district would help pick three commissioners: their own and two countywide. Except that it is no more likely that a black candidate from East Knoxville would get elected countywide than it would be for a candidate from Mascot or Vestal.

Two black commissioners comprise 20 percent of the 10 votes necessary to pass an ordinance under the present 19 member commission. With 11 commissioners it takes six votes to pass legislation. One commissioner out of six is just 16 percent.

It also reduces the ability of two black commissioners to wheel and deal to get the white power structure to pay attention to their district. As it is now, they can split their vote to keep two factions happy. They can play good cop/bad cop. They can provide their 20 percent of a winning vote to a faction in return for something for their district. It is no mere happenstance that the current commission chair is black member Thomas "Tank" Strickland. It is the result of the masterful job he and former colleague Diane Jordan and current member Sam McKenzie have done playing one faction off another.

(The reduction in power in black East Knoxville also applies to a reduction in power in East Knox County and South Knox County, also two districts unlikely to produce a candidate with the countywide name identification and money to win a countywide commission seat. But it is especially problematic for a black district, where history has shown the white power structure in the South as not being especially generous to black neighborhoods—unless they have political power.)

Another irony is that Obama at the top of the ticket reduced Democratic turnout in rural Democratic conservative legislative districts statewide. The large margin for John McCain led to a three- or four-percentage-point win for Republican House members in traditional Democratic districts. I have written previously that the Republicans were counting on an "Obama/Palin" ticket to capture the House—the liberal Obama to depress the Democratic vote and the conservative Sarah Palin to fire up the Republicans unenthusiastic for McCain.

As I predicted, the retiring and long-serving conservative Democrats (Randy Rinks, Frank Buck, and John Hood) left open seats captured by the Republicans. It also cost black state Rep. Nathan Vaughn, a Sullivan County Democrat, his seat. The McCain turnout made that another Republican win.

President-elect Obama's win was historic and a marvelous statement about the state of race relations in America. But it was a disaster for black political power in Tennessee.