Elections Boost Democratic Hopes for 2006 Ed Gordon wraps up Tuesday's off-year state elections, where the GOP suffered some disappointing losses in key races and issues. Guests: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of political science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture; Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland; and NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.
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Elections Boost Democratic Hopes for 2006

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Elections Boost Democratic Hopes for 2006

Elections Boost Democratic Hopes for 2006

Elections Boost Democratic Hopes for 2006

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Ed Gordon wraps up Tuesday's off-year state elections, where the GOP suffered some disappointing losses in key races and issues. Guests: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of political science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture; Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland; and NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Democrats had a good day yesterday. Both New Jersey and Virginia elected new Democratic governors. Republicans are insisting the losses haven't dampened their hopes for the midterm elections next year. Elsewhere, Atlanta voted to keep its popular Mayor Shirley Franklin, and the Motor City gave incumbent Kwame Kilpatrick another term. For more on yesterday's winners and losers, we're joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of political science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture. She comes to us from Princeton University where she's currently a visiting professor. Also with us, Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland and a regular here on this program. You can hear him on "Political Corner," which airs every Thursday on NEWS & NOTES.

All right. Folks, thanks very much for joining us.

Ron, let me start with you. The idea that Democrats are now waving flags and pom-poms, I'm sure, up and down, suggesting that this is a harbinger of things to come, do you read that into what we saw yesterday?

Professor RON WALTERS (University of Maryland): Yes, I do. I think that, particularly, with respect to the election in Virginia; that was widely touted to be a harbinger of things to come, the election next year, because of the president's low favorability rating. And, of course, you can be sure that the press around here in this area is going to beam to the nation, and to the world the fact that the president's favorability ratings were the factor, really, of the Republican defeat, not only here, perhaps, in other places.

GORDON: Melissa?

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (University of Chicago): Yeah, I think I would be a little more cautious on this. We didn't pick up anything yesterday. We replaced two incumbent Democratic governors with two more Democratic governors. We didn't actually gain any seats. I think what it does tell us is that there are still Democrats in the South, which is an important lesson maybe for the Democratic Party at the national level to learn, but there's no reason to think that in the presidential election, or even in the midterms, which are coming up, that Virginia, for example, necessarily will go Democratic rather than Republican. We know that there were Democratic governors of Virginia while it was a stronghold state for the first Bush and for Reagan. I think what it does give us an opportunity to say is that it looks as if the Republican Party is weakened and that weakening is important for recruiting people who are actually going to run in the midterms across the country. It's not so much about telling us what voters are likely to do, but it does encourage smart and interesting people to actually run.

GORDON: Ron, we saw Jon Corzine win in New Jersey in a contentious battle against Doug Forrester, two big-money gentlemen going up against each other, but we also saw, interestingly enough, in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg trounce the Democratic candidate there, Mr. Ferrer. And one would question whether or not, when we look at the race and its role in politics today, here's a classic example of someone who, by all accounts, from most folks across the board, as doing a fairly good job, was ushered back into that seat with not a lot of play as relates to race.

Prof. WALTERS: That's certainly true. As a matter of fact, part of the story with respect to the Bloomberg race--by the way, both of these gentlemen, Corzine and Bloomberg, were expected to win these races handily, but the question with respect to Bloomberg was, you know: How would the black vote split? How would the Hispanic vote split? And it seems as though both of these groups are relatively comfortable with Bloomberg because the vote did split in each case, and the leadership of the black community, of course, was behind Ferrer, but that didn't seem to give him the lion's share of these votes.

GORDON: Interesting play in the Motor City, my hometown of Detroit, where we had two African-Americans in, perhaps, the most contentious race in the country, and that was Freeman Hendrix, the former deputy mayor under Dennis Archer here, going against the incumbent, Kwame Kilpatrick. By all poll accounts, Freeman Hendrix held the lead. As a matter of fact, one of the local stations here last night predicted him to be the winner as soon as the polls closed, and like the phoenix rising from the ashes, Kwame Kilpatrick is now ushered into his second term. We should note that we were scheduled to have Mayor Kilpatrick on with us today, but as those numbers did not finalize themselves until the wee, wee hours, the mayor is still sleeping. We're told that he'll be up in a little bit, and we should note that we're going to probably have him on tomorrow, certainly by the end of the week.

Talk to me, Melissa, if you will, in looking at a city like Detroit, what that means by virtue of how far we've come to allow two African-American men to vie for a seat, albeit in a majority black city, but the idea that it can be contentious and to a great degree split politically, the black vote, in a city that heretofore, when you had two candidates of different races, you had a solid bloc of black voters.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, this might be read as the maturity or the immaturity of black politics, depending on what position you take here. But the return of Mayor Kilpatrick to Detroit is telling us something about the transition in leadership in African-American local politics, right? This is happening also in cities like Chicago, all of the major cities that we've thought of as like the strongholds of black politics, where it was at one point sort of the Old Guard, civil rights leadership, which is now aging. And the question is: What will happen? Are they willing to pass the baton to a new generation? And is that new generation capable of governing? And I think that all of those questions were up for grabs.

When I look at what happened in Detroit and this sort of come-from-behind victory, we could tell a story about sort of individual charisma, but we might also tell a story about the awareness of the people of Detroit, that the structural things that were facing the mayor, the city that is half the size that it once was, the kind of budget deficits that it's facing are as much to blame as any given individual personality. They're not making the mistake of California voters who thought, `Well, if we put in The Terminator, this will solve all the problems,' that, in fact, it's really a set of structural issues facing anyone who would be mayor of that city, and they're willing to give, you know, this young leadership an opportunity to have learned from its mistakes and do better in its next term.

GORDON: Ron Walters, we should note by full disclosure that you assisted Kwame Kilpatrick as an adviser during his campaign, but one of the issues that I'd like you to address is the idea that the mayor has already suggested--and here's the interesting note of the maturity of black politics--that he made some mistakes down the line, perhaps took some things for granted, and was told in no uncertain terms in the primary by African-American voters, `You'd better get it straight. Don't take us for granted.'

Prof. WALTERS: That's right. He came into office really as--and very quickly sort of donned the moniker of the hip-hop mayor with a diamond ring in his ear and all of the accoutrements, spending lavishly with the city credit card, on expensive family transportation, partying and so forth. That was the wrong image. And so when he got ready to run, I think changing that image was extremely important here, but there were three big things I think that were responsible for this. Victory one, of course, is the youth vote. When you look at the turnout, it is clear that the young people stayed with him and to some extent maybe have increased their vote. I haven't looked at the final figures, but that looks plausible given the relative turnout between last year and this year. The other thing is church support. Well, I saw Reverend Charles Adams in Sheffield, particularly Reverend Wendell Anthony who was the head of the NAACP supporting him, I knew that this looked...

GORDON: The local chapter in Detroit.

Prof. WALTERS: The local chapter, that's right. I knew that this looked kind of like the miraculous comeback of Marion Barry in Washington, DC, from the ashes who paid a lot of attention to the mechanics of voter turnout and went below the radar screen. And Kwame Kilpatrick didn't do very many press interviews running that strategy. And then finally there was Rosa Parks' funeral at which he had a chance to be showcased with a lot of leaders around the country and came off very well. So I think these are the main things responsible for his comeback.

GORDON: Melissa, let's go back to what we opened with and that's the idea of what this--the findings that we see coming out of yesterday, what this means for the politic of the national midterm that we will see in about a year or so. What do we look to as it relates to whether or not we're going to see the national base of voters on both sides of the aisle? Will we see them energized?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, we have a saying in political science that derives from one of our colleagues and the saying is: You can't beat somebody with nobody. So in other words, the weakness of the GOP which has been displayed in these off-year elections is clear, but unless there is a strong Democratic Party to take advantage of and exploit this weakness, we won't see any changes in the midterms. If, in fact, the Democratic Party can recognize where these weaknesses are--and, for example, look at the Virginia race and see that the winner in the Virginia race was able in part to win because he was able to talk about religious issues in a progressive way. So he was talking about, for example, the fact that he's a Roman Catholic who opposes the death penalty, bringing in his religion to support progressive issues, to the extent that the Democratic Party can learn from that can recruit new interesting people to run. And if they'll run them at every level, from dogcatcher to school board to the midterms, then, in fact, I think we'll see a shift in leadership.

GORDON: Ron, with about 30 seconds, what about the black base and the energy or lack thereof that we've seen quite frankly over the course of the last couple of years? Do you believe black America will be energized?

Prof. WALTERS: I'm not so sure about that. Let me just say first of all that I was in Iowa two days ago and with some political officials at the state level and they were very energized about what they see in the prospect of Democratic victories in this campaign and some of them were planning to run next year as a result of it. But I think that when you look at the Democratic Party--I agree with Melissa about the question here of whether or not the Democrats are going to have a strategy and the mobilization that could take advantage of this. That also speaks to the fact that blacks are in disarray with respect to that. There is no black political center of gravity right now, and to that extent, it means that blacks themselves will not be able to put forward their agenda and I think that's the most troubling thing to me.

GORDON: All right. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. She is also the author of "Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought." Ron Walters is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland and author of "Freedom Is Not Enough."

I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

Prof. WALTERS: Good to be with you.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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