Why Have So Few African-Americans Been Elected To The Senate?

Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker was sworn in Thursday, making him only the fourth African-American elected by popular vote to the United States Senate, and only the second in the chamber currently. This is in contrast to the 41 blacks who represent House districts.

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Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker took the oath of office today, filling the vacancy left by Senator Frank Lautenberg's death. Booker's arrival in the Senate restores the Democrats 55-seat majority. It also doubles the number of African-American senators to two, the most the Senate has ever had at one time.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Placing his hand on a Bible brought by his recently widowed mother, 44-year-old Cory Booker became the first African-American representing New Jersey in the Senate. The former Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law school graduate was enthusiastically sworn-in by the Senate's president, Vice President Joe Biden.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: And that you will faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you're about to enter, so help you God.

SENATOR ELECT CORY BOOKER: I do.

BIDEN: Congratulations, Senator. Welcome to...

(APPLAUSE)

WELNA: Among the senators rushing to congratulate Booker was South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, the chamber's only other African-American member. Like two other recent black senators, Scott was appointed to fill a vacancy. Booker himself is only the fourth black senator ever elected by popular vote. Of the 1,949 senators who've ever served, only nine have been African-American.

Colorado Democrat Michael Bennett is in charge of recruiting candidates for next year's Senate races.

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET: Whether it's one of 55 or two of 100, those numbers are clearly nowhere near what they should be in terms of the percentage of our population. And we're going to have to work to ensure that the Senate is a place that reflects the United States.

WELNA: Another Democratic senator, California's Barbara Boxer, says black candidates have had difficulty winning elections when the majority of voters are white.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER: It's that much harder for minorities to get to the Senate because they have to run statewide. So the base is generally smaller. But Cory Booker defies that.

WELNA: Booker did win in a state where blacks account for less than one-seventh of the population. And Tim Scott expects to win the full Senate term he's seeking next year in South Carolina. He shrugs off the fact that he's black.

SENATOR TIM SCOTT: I haven't thought that it's been an impediment. I've never considered that being an impediment for many things actually, except for those things are inconsistent with common sense. So I think we'll continue to do what we have done, which is to elect people consistent with their - our morals and our values. So if you have the right issues, no matter your complexion, you win.

WELNA: But Lindsey Graham, the other Republican senator from South Carolina, says the GOP has a lot of fence-mending to do.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: Among Republicans, we have a huge problem with African-American voters. We're losing 93 percent of the vote. So, even though this is the party of Lincoln, the party of Lincoln has taken a wrong turn when it comes to African-Americans and minorities in general.

WELNA: Forty one of the House members are African-American, all are Democrats. Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole says his party just needs to work harder.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: You know, it's just a matter of getting good people to run for office. I think color and this is, you know, the president certainly played a big role in this. It's less and less of a barrier.

WELNA: But for North Carolina House Democrat Mel Watt, who's black, the color barrier remains real.

REPRESENTATIVE MEL WATT: Race is still a factor. It's a factor in terms of people's perceptions, of preparation for jobs. I'm facing that myself.

WELNA: Indeed, Cory Booker's first vote today was to try to break a Republican filibuster of Watt's nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency. That effort failed.

Wade Henderson heads the leadership conference on human rights.

WADE HENDERSON: I am troubled that he is the only sitting member of Congress that has been denied a confirmation since the Civil War. And that speaks volumes about where the country is.

WELNA: In a country that gained a black senator on the same day a black congressman lost his bid to join the black president's administration.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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