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Obama Likely To Be Senate's Only Black For Years To Come

by Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Alan Keyes Candidacy No Laughing Matter

(PNS) -- The virtually-certain election of black Illinois legislator Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate in November has ignited almost as much excitement as his acclaimed Democratic convention keynote speech. But Obama enters a mostly lily-white legislative body that has resisted change for years.

He'll be only the fifth black ever to sit in the Senate. If Georgia representative Denise Majete wins the Aug. 10 Democratic primary runoff for the Senate nomination, she also has an outside chance of winning a Senate seat. If she doesn't, Obama may well be the lone black in the Senate for years to come.

The Senate's glaring diversity problem goes far beyond African Americans. There are no Hispanics, no openly gay members, and only one American Indian (who is retiring), one Chinese American, one Japanese American and 14 women in the Senate -- out of 100 senators. It remains a clubby good ol' boy network of mostly rich, white males.

The Senate has sole power to approve a declaration of war, debate treaties, approve nominations to the Supreme Court and decide the guilt or innocence of an impeached president.

The Founding Fathers made no secret that they wanted the Senate to be an Olympian lawmaking body. James Madison bluntly wrote that the Senate should be the ultimate check to prevent the people from "overwhelming" government. For nearly 125 years, state legislators elected senators. Though the 17th Amendment, passed in 1913, changed that, it did not end the Senate's political insulation and elitism. Nearly two-dozen senators are millionaires. Many have been in the Senate for decades, and they are virtually impossible to unseat. The six-year Senate term of office is the longest of any elected body in America. That spares them the need to continually debate issues and policy decisions directly with voters. It can also shield their actions from public scrutiny.

Mississippi is a textbook example of how changing racial demographics have little effect on Senate incumbents. Blacks comprise a third of the state's population, and more than a quarter of the voters. They are solidly Democratic. Mississippi had the second-highest percentage of black delegates at the Democratic convention. Yet the state's two senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, have been in the Senate more than four decades. They are doctrinaire, conservative Republicans. In Lott's case, there's strong evidence of lingering segregationist sentiments.

A Senate candidate also must raise millions, get their party's official stamp and appeal to conservative, white middle-class voters to get elected. Obama, though as yet running unopposed, raised a record $4 million dollars in a three-month span this past spring. He must preach a centrist, conservative message of family values, tax fairness and military preparedness to draw support from conservative white Democrat voters and neutralize Republicans in central and downstate Illinois. As a top Democrat, he also must adhere tightly to Democratic presidential contender John Kerry's campaign emphasis of toughness on national security and the war on terrorism.

In the past, several measures to correct political imbalances and insure fairer representation in the Senate have been discussed. They include more public funding, same-day voter registration, equal access to TV time for qualified independent candidates, instant runoffs and proportional representation. But even if one of these measures were to weather the fierce resistance from top Democrats and Republicans and get off the drawing board, it would do little to fix the Senate's diversity problem.

Unlike House representatives and state legislators, the Senate is not based on proportional representation. Senators represent a broad geographic area instead of specific districts. Though California's population is 60 times greater than Wyoming, it has the same number of senators. The chance of a Constitutional overhaul to change that is nil.

A shameful racial example of the Senate's unlimited power to make and enforce its own rules was aimed at Mississippi Sen. Hiram Revels, the first black in the Senate. When Revels presented his credentials to the Senate in February 1870, some senators immediately demanded he be rejected on the grounds that he did not meet the nine-year citizenship requirement for a senator (he did). The move was defeated, and Revels was eventually seated, to fill the unexpired term of the former Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. He served barely a year.

Other than the single term that Blanche K. Bruce served a decade after Revels, it would take nearly a century before black Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke entered the halls of what stands as the world's most elite and august chamber. Obama's election won't do much to change the Senate's frozen conservative tradition and granite resistance to reform.

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Albion Monitor August 22, 2004 (

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