Black North Carolinians long suffered from a case of unrequited support from the politicians who presumed to speak for them. Even as far back as 1952, former Governor Kerr Scott was courting African American voters in a primary with a conservative, segregationist Democrat while steadfastly insisting that he did not support integrated schools. The list of bounced checks from there forward is a long one. While in recent years Democrats have given Black voters’ interests more of the attention they deserve, the D.S.C.C. still landed on the side of an inexperienced white moderate at a time when numerous African Americans had expressed interest in the 2020 U.S. Senate race. Black voters deserve better in this state.
The central fact in this situation is that Black voters make up a plurality of registered North Carolina Democrats, 45% to 43% who are white and the remainder another race. The mismatch between voting strength and candidate-representation becomes even more glaring when one considers that many registered white Democrats have been voting Republican for decades, so Blacks make up an even larger percentage of North Carolinians who cast a Democratic ballot. African Americans in northeastern North Carolina also comprise arguably the last bloc of rural Democrats. When Black Democrats complain of being taken for granted, their strong representation in the ranks of Democratic voters is one of the most important reasons for this justified discontent.
The next two election cycles should see Democrats finally offer their African American base an opportunity for representation at the top of the ballot. In addition to the moral debt they owe African Americans, nominating a Black candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022 or governor in 2024 would provide strategic advantages for the party. North Carolina Democrats have seen Black–and especially Black male–turnout erode cycle after cycle since it peaked in 2008. In a state where Black support is indispensable to Democratic victories, energizing the Black community with an African American at the top of the ballot could do much to close the turnout gap between blacks and whites. Also, Black candidates have more flexibility to make the deliberate cross-racial appeals that Democrats need if they are to reach working-class white voters who are increasingly deserting the party.
Fortunately, Democrats have a bench of strong African American recruits to run in either of these races. Topping the list is Anthony Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation who would bring one of the strongest resumes to the race of any North Carolina candidate since Elizabeth Dole. In Anita Earls and Pat Timmons-Goodson, they have two African American women who have won elections to the state Supreme Court. Earls has the advantage of having won as the candidate leading the state ticket. Dipping a bit further, Syndey Batch brings a savvy and magnetic appeal to suburban voters and represents crucial Wake County. Any of these candidates and perhaps others could mount strong campaigns for governor or Senate.
In the entire history of the North Carolina Democratic Party, only once have they nominated an African American to lead the ticket. That happened in 1990, when Harvey Gantt captured the imagination of voters across the country in his run against Jesse Helms. Six years later, Gantt ran ahead of President Bill Clinton in his rematch against Helms, though he did not knock off the racist senator. Black voters are even more crucial to the Democratic Party now than they were then, and as Gantt has become an elder statesman, it’s time to nominate another African American to fill his shoes.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.