Race to Defeat

How the Black Caucus elected Newt Gingrich speaker

Black Democrats in the House suffered a disastrous defeat in November's election, even though they didn't lose a single seat. Despite going 37 for 37 at the polls, they enter the new Congress as members of the minority party--something none of them has ever done before.

They have only themselves to blame. Racial gerrymandering--long promoted by civil rights activists as necessary to ensure the election of blacks to Congress--doomed at least seven white Democrats to defeat in November, mainly in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. "I've warned the Black Caucus for years that this was coming," says David Bositis, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "Over the last two elections, the Democrats have lost as many as 15 seats because of majority black redistricting."

If those 15 seats were still in Democratic hands, House Democrats would have a 218-216 edge. Black Democrats would continue to operate in the majority party and sway national policy on such issues as welfare reform, aid to cities, and Haiti.

But no more. What enabled record numbers of blacks to win election to the House in 1992 also planted the seeds for their political disenfranchisement in 1994. Congressional redistricting after the 1990 Census saw federal courts and state lawmakers create 13 new majority black districts, mainly by snatching black voters from existing districts and stuffing them into new ones. This essentially guaranteed the election of black Democrats to the new seats, but it also "whitened" neighboring districts and made them more Republican.

Most of the redistricting occurred in the South, home to nearly half of all black Americans. In 1990, the 13 southern states elected three blacks to Congress. Redistricting after the census lifted the number of blacks elected to Congress from the South to 17. But it also hurt many white Democrats who had previously enjoyed the reliable support of African Americans, up to 90 percent of whom vote Democratic in any given election. Approximately five candidates who probably would have won in the absence of racial gerrymandering were defeated in 1992. Others weathered the storm, sheltered in part by Bill Clinton's coattails. With Clinton a drag on the Democrats in 1994, however, the GOP found itself with easy pickings throughout the South. Republican congressional seats from the region now outnumber Democratic ones for the first time since Reconstruction, 73 to 64. In 1990, Democrats led 83 to 46. "There's more at work here than redistricting, but gerrymandering has aided Republicans immensely," says Katharine Butler, a law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Georgia provides the most dramatic example of how race-conscious redistricting tipped the scale to favor Republicans. In 1990, the state sent nine Democrats and only one Republican (Newt Gingrich) to Washington. After reapportionment in 1992, Georgia picked up an extra seat and created
three majority black districts. The statewide vote split 7-4 for the Democrats, including three blacks (two new members and Rep. John Lewis, first elected in 1986). Last November, positions reversed and the GOP gained a 7-4 advantage. All but one of the six GOP gains made since 1990 have coincided with a substantial loss of black voters in the districts electing Republicans. "There's no doubt that race-driven redistricting was a windfall to the GOP in Georgia," says Timothy O'Rourke, head of Clemson University's political science department.

This wasn't just a pleasant surprise for Republicans--it was the result of careful planning. The GOP worked in cahoots with civil rights leaders to create majority black districts. "We saw the anti-quota party pushing quotas in this particular area," says Carol Swain, associate professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University. The Republican appointees in the Bush administration's Justice Department regularly harassed state reapportionment committees and forced them to set aside special districts for blacks. In Virginia, the House of Delegates mapped out a redistricting plan that earned nods from its black caucus and the state's black governor. But Justice halted the plan and ordered Virginia to create one more
majority black district. It's not clear whether this accounts for the GOP's pick-up of one seat in Virginia last year, but both Republicans and blacks have made gains at the expense of white Democrats.

These redistricting schemes ultimately stem from the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965 to ensure black voters full participation in electoral politics--something they had been denied, especially in the South. But over the past 30 years it has slowly transformed into something quite different: A mechanism that not only guarantees equal access to the ballot box for blacks, but also virtually requires racially proportionate election outcomes. Democrats have aided and abetted this development, essentially underwriting the GOP's cynical exploitation of their politically foolish act. They will now pay for it with years in the wilderness. Other byproducts of the Voting Rights Act include:

* A more liberal Democratic Party. Blacks now control almost 19 percent of the seats held by Democrats in the House, up from about 15 percent in the 103rd Congress. Many of them are on the far-left fringes of the party, while most are just plain liberal. They will add to President Clinton's woes, yanking him away from the New Democrat impulses that probably represent his only chance for a second term. They may also highlight friction within the party by publicly urging Jesse Jackson to challenge Clinton in the 1996 primaries or to run as an independent. They will make a lot of noise in the upcoming welfare debate and will surely play the race card early and often. But their influence, now that they are members of the minority party, is only a fraction of what it once was.

* Voting-rights gridlock. Black members of Congress won't want to jeopardize their seats by rethinking voting rights, no matter what the costs to their party. "They don't care about their constituent needs, they just want to get re-elected," says Abigail Thernstrom, who first predicted disaster for southern white Democrats in her 1987 book, Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights. Republicans aren't likely to broach the issue either, even as they bang away at affirmative action law in workplaces, schools, and courts. "This might be their single olive branch to the Black Caucus," says O'Rourke.

Perhaps only the courts can save the day for displaced Democrats. Lawsuits in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas hope to knock down several of the majority black districts; partial success could go a long way in restoring lost seats in the South.

* Black concerns ignored. White Democrats have long been important allies to the civil rights movement. But constituencies drive politics, and members of Congress who see their black voter base shrinking will have less of an incentive to build bridges. Some may even switch parties in order to solidify their white support. "They'll see that they can't win as Democrats, so they'll jump ship," says the University of South Carolina's Butler.

* Depressed black turnout in 1996. Black turnout was low throughout the South in 1994, and redistricting may be partially to blame. For blacks in gerrymandered districts, elections are usually determined in Democratic primaries. There's less of an incentive to vote in November when the outcome is certain by June. For blacks with a smaller political base in other districts, mobilization becomes a problem. If they don't think their voices will resonate, they may choose to stay at home. The Democrats could face another tough election in 1996.

* The GOP magnet. Blacks have made an almost total political investment in the Democratic Party. Many may now consider it a good time to diversify. They increasingly support Republican candidates on the state and local level. The GOP nominated 24 blacks for Congress last year--a record number. What's more, Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia each won 25 percent of the black vote in their 1993 races; George Voinovich of Ohio took a startling 40 percent last year. National numbers, however, remain low: George Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in 1988, and 12 percent in 1992. Over 98 percent of Republican presidential votes still come from whites, compared to about 75 percent for Democrats. But if current trends continue, and especially if Colin Powell lands on a GOP ticket in 1996, this spotty success on the local level may spill over nationally. If it does, the Republicans will have driven a devastating wedge into the Democrats' base.

* A return to race-blind redistricting. As the Democrats pore over the 1994 election returns to figure out what went wrong, they may notice their huge political and moral miscalculation in advancing voting-rights radicalism. The Republicans, in turn, could take their cue from Clarence Thomas, who, in the Supreme Court's longest opinion of the 1993-94 term, blasted racial gerrymandering as nothing more than political pork for racial and ethnic interests. The parties then could join together in bipartisan consensus to outlaw color-conscious redistricting. What are the chances? Slim to none. But that shouldn't stop us from hoping they do the right thing.

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