Monday, January 22, 2007

RICHMOND — Virginia residents made history in 1989 when they elected L. Douglas Wilder as the first black governor in the United States.

However, many of the details have been forgotten, including that Mr. Wilder, a Democrat, defeated J. Marshall Coleman, a white Republican, by fewer than 7,000 votes, despite pre-election polls showing him well ahead.

That some voters might have abandoned party affiliations to block a black candidate — and would again — may still deter some blacks from seeking office, said Krysta Jones, a District-area lobbyist whose recently created Virginia Leadership Institute seeks to get more blacks into Virginia politics.

Mrs. Jones, an Arlington resident, wants to increase the number of black elected officials in Virginia to 500 by 2026, nearly doubling the existing number, which has been nearly 30 years in the making.

Mrs. Jones will offer training to would-be black lawmakers on running an effective campaign, surviving on the political battleground, and on overcoming the hesitation to run for office in Virginia.

“We’re on Capitol Hill; we are working on campaigns,” said Mrs. Jones, 28. “We’re just not taking that final step.”

From 1970 to 2001, the number of black officeholders in Virginia increased from 52 to 246, or about 64 per decade, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C. nonprofit that tracks black lawmakers nationwide.

It’s a slow but steady increase reflected across the South.

While Reconstruction created a flood of black Southern lawmakers, the attempt at reform eventually collapsed, sending the era’s last black congressman packing in 1901, said David Bositis, a political analyst with the center.

Black lawmakers reappeared by the 1940s, he said, but “in very, very tiny numbers.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked a shift. By 1970, 1,469 blacks held office nationwide, according to the center. By 2000, they had increased to 9,040.

Numbers are highest in states such as Alabama, where 17.2 percent of elected officials were black in 2001, according to the center’s most recent data. The state is 26 percent black.

“You have Ivy League African-Americans who get an Ivy League education” and increasingly appeal to white, middle-class voters, Mr. Bositis said. Before, he said, most blacks had attended historically black colleges emphasizing theology and agriculture over political grooming.

A pool of senior black lawmakers also has emerged as mentors to up-and-comers, a lifeline similar to the one that historically has helped white candidates, he said.

Yet in Virginia, where blacks make up 19 percent of the population, they held 7.9 percent of elected offices in 2001, according to the center. The state keeps no figures on the number of black officeholders.

In the General Assembly, blacks hold 17 of the 140 seats and most represent majority-black districts. One of Virginia’s 13 members of Congress, Rep. Robert C. Scott, is black and represents a majority-black district. Mr. Scott is a Democrat representing a section of southeast Virginia.

Finding blacks who believe they can win is one stumbling block. Fewer than 50 attended recent forums Mrs. Jones held for blacks interested in running for office.

“When we have a forum saying ‘learn how to run for office,’ for a lot of African-Americans that’s too much of a big step,” she said. “I just don’t think we see ourselves in those positions.”

Lingering fears that whites won’t support them also may be a factor. Mrs. Jones pointed to a January 2006 Yale University study that estimated a black Democratic candidate on the ballot increased black and white voter turnout by as much as 3 percentage points — blacks coming to show support and whites to show opposition.

Kenneth Longmyer thinks money, not racism, blocked him from winning a U.S. House seat.

Mr. Longmyer, a Fairfax County Democrat, sought Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III’s seat in 2004 and 2006.

“I had hoped for more financial support from the black community,” said Mr. Longmyer, also a former Foreign Service officer. “I’m convinced that black candidates can win in Virginia in white-majority districts. It requires really a concerted effort.”

Mrs. Jones’ group will start a six-month candidate-certification program. Enrollees will be assigned to help with a real-life campaign and will be paired with a mentor among Virginia’s black lawmakers, she said.

Mrs. Jones, who lobbies for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, has a special interest in black elected officials: She hopes to become one.

“There are so many qualified African-Americans out there,” she said. “They just maybe don’t have the confidence or know where to start.”

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