Every North Carolina governor, U.S. senator, state Senate leader, lieutenant governor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state all have one thing in common.
They’re all white.
The influence of African-Americans in statewide office hit a peak in the 1990s, when Dan Blue (now a state senator) served as House speaker, Henry Frye became chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Ralph Campbell was elected state auditor, and Harvey Gantt got the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate twice.
Since then, no other racial “glass ceilings” have been broken in state politics, and our leaders remain largely white: There are no minorities on the Council of State or in the top legislative leadership posts.
The Republican caucus in the state House and Senate is exclusively white. And while a number of African-American candidates have run in statewide Democratic primaries in recent years, most haven’t gotten serious consideration from the party establishment.
In a state where African-Americans make up 22 percent of the population and nearly 10 percent of the population is Hispanic, our political parties must do better.
But there are signs of progress. Gov. Roy Cooper’s cabinet is among the most diverse in state history, and both political parties are fielding a more diverse slate of legislative candidates than they’ve had in recent election cycles.
Regardless of whether these candidates win or lose this round, Democrats and Republicans should look to them for leadership in the future. Most are young, talented, energetic and ready to lead our state. But they need a party establishment that won’t tell them to wait a few decades until some uninspiring, middle-aged white guy is ready to retire.
Here are five of the many impressive minority leaders who filed for legislative seats this year:
▪ Rep. Chaz Beasley, D-Mecklenburg: Beasley, who is African-American, has stood out in the House during his first term representing suburban Mecklenburg County. An accomplished attorney who grew up in a low-income, single-parent home, he’s become a powerful voice for Democrats on social media and other platforms.
▪ Emmanuel Wilder, Republican candidate for House: A systems analyst for the tech company Red Hat, Wilder, who is black, is already showing he can help adapt public policy to fit North Carolina’s 21st century economy. Earlier this year, his campaign asked the state elections agency if he could accept contribution in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The answer was no, but Wilder offered some suggestions to make it work.
▪ Sen. Erica Smith, D-Northampton: An engineer, educator and ordained minister, Smith chairs the Legislative Black Caucus and has been effective in helping the state’s economically challenged northeastern corner. She recently fought for a summer science, math and technology program that was targeted for budget cuts, and it’s now expanding into more counties.
▪ Jarrod Lowery, GOP candidate for House: A member of the Lumbee Tribe and a Marine Corps veteran, Lowery is running to represent Robeson County. He’s already well acquainted with the workings of state government as a regional director for the Department of Insurance and a former aide to Gov. Pat McCrory. His campaign focuses on vocational training needs and rural issues.
▪ Luis Toledo, former Democratic candidate for Senate: Toledo ran a strong primary campaign in Wake County but fell short to a better-funded candidate. If he’d been elected, he would be the only Latino in the legislature. He’s an Air Force veteran and former assistant state auditor who now works as a policy analyst for the left-leaning N.C. Justice Center.