Will Michigan Ever Have a Black Governor?
Only twice in the state’s history have black candidates gone forward – and twice they failed. What must a black candidate do to win over the state?
The last time an African-American attempted to become governor of Michigan, Ronald Reagan was stubbornly maintaining that he wouldn’t impose economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, the internet as we know it didn’t exist and Mary Sheffield hadn’t been born.
But the bright 29-year-old Detroit City Council member, a Democrat and youngest ever to serve on the local legislative body, argues that given the current Republican-dominated political climate in Lansing, the state’s first black governor could very well be a card-carrying member of the Grand Old Party.
“As far as a black Democratic and progressive candidate being elected governor,” laments the granddaughter of legendary UAW official Horace Sheffield Jr., “I tend to think it would be more of an uphill climb given the state of race relations in Michigan.”
History suggests that Sheffield is on to something.
Two black candidates – Bill Cobbs and Kentiel White – have filed campaign paperwork to enter the gubernatorial race in 2018, both running as Democrats and both competing with frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer for the party’s nomination. But even without Whitmer in the ring, they’d still face a challenge.
In 1986, William Lucas, an African-American and a recent convert to the Republican Party, won nomination as GOP candidate for Michigan governor. It was considered peculiar at the time considering that about 90 percent of blacks routinely vote for Democratic Party candidates – and that the straight-laced former FBI agent had been a Democrat when he served as Wayne County Sheriff from 1969 to 1982 and was elected Wayne County Executive in 1982.
A party switch couldn’t sway white voters, and it certainly turned off black ones. What a potential black candidate has to do now is be more creative, experts suggest.
The year was 1964.
“Where Did Our Love Go” by the Supremes was nation’s top-selling single, gas at the pump cost a mere 30 cents a gallon and the Freedom Now Party, led by the Rev. Albert B. Cleage of Central United Congregational Church in Detroit, presented a slate of candidates for statewide office. Cleage, a fair-skinned, blue-eyed black man with a look more like the sycophantic suburban advertising executive Larry Tate from television’s Bewitched but with a straight-no-chaser, street-corner rap more like Harlem’s Malcolm X, offered himself as candidate for governor.
The FNP argued that “the militant voice has ever maintained that the Negro struggle is a power struggle – a political struggle – and Negroes will only get what they demonstrate enough power to take.”
The effort, however, was rounded rejected by whites as well as traditional black leadership. In fact, during a stop in Detroit during the fall of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I believe the fundamental political aim of the Negro people is to join with other progressive segments of this society to create a political force capable of further democratization of our country.”
Cleage and the FNP earned a paltry 4,767 votes statewide, or about 0.15 percent of the electorate.
In 1986, Lucas, too, was rejected by African-American leadership. Most of the state’s black politicos, including Coleman Young and congressman John Conyers, shunned his candidacy and backed the incumbent James Blanchard, a white Democrat. However, the Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of Detroit’s Historic Little Rock Baptist Church and prominent black leader, backed Lucas.
Holley accused Blanchard of not having an “urban policy” and projecting an “anti-Detroit” attitude. “Lip service from Jim Blanchard is all we get, and a blitz on blackness around election time,” the fiery preacher said at the time.
When President Ronald Reagan visited Detroit’s Cobo Hall on Sept. 25 to stomp for Lucas, civil rights leaders called bullshit.
Tom Turner, an African-American who had served as president of the Detroit Branch NAACP and was the current Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO president, labeled Lucas an “Oreo.” The name, like the sandwich cookie, was designed to describe someone who is black on the outside but white on the inside.
“I believe that the black community is tired of the white power structure throwing black candidates at us and saying you have an obligation to support that person,” Turner stated.
He and others considered it an insult when Lucas’ campaign purchased a full-page ad in The Michigan Chronicle that asked rhetorically, “If Frederick Douglass were running for governor, you would vote for him. Wouldn’t you? How about Harriet Tubman or Booker T. Washington, or Mary McLeod Bethune or Whitney Young?”
Lucas lost decisively by a 68-to-31 percent margin.
Did race play a factor?
Not according to a Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV-commissioned exit poll. Only 5 percent said “Lucas being black” was important to them in deciding how to vote. He earned 30 percent of the white vote and only 23 percent of the black vote. Conversely, Blanchard secured 76 percent of the black vote and 69 percent of the white vote.
Veteran Democratic Party political consultant Jack Casey, a white man, however, summed it up this way. The Lucas campaign “started out with a cynical plan and that backfired. They said, ‘Hey, let’s get a black guy and he will bring in black votes.’ This was naïve, thinking blacks are sheep. Blacks voted their party and their interests,” he tells BLAC.
Casey argued further that Republicans “didn’t take into consideration that there are two sides to a racial question. It was a racial election by design. The blacks didn’t fall for it, and the whites voted by race.”
Marlene Elwell, a Republican Party member, expounds further: “They never got to know Bill Lucas. Coleman Young has really made it hard for any black person to run on a statewide ticket unless he does a people-to-people, grassroots campaign to share the man.”
An idea whose time has come?
Learning from stumbles of past candidates, will Michigan ever have a black governor in the foreseeable future?
“I don’t see why not,” Dennis Archer asserts.
The former Detroit mayor has considered running for the office himself, had Republicans shaking in the boots, but ultimately decided to serve as president of the American Bar Association and spend more time with his family. Archer tells BLAC that he believes that the key to winning the office is securing sufficient financing, cultivating outstate relationships, developing a strong policy platform and having strong ties in the black community.
Cleage and Lucas did not have those keys, Archer concludes.
Black governors are in rare air. Only three African-Americans have served as governor of a state: L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1990, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts in 2006 and David Paterson of New York in 2008. All are Democrats.
Wilder, grandson of slaves and a former state lieutenant governor, won an election so close that results weren’t official until weeks after Election Day. Patrick, a South Side of Chicago native, rose from poverty to become a Bill Clinton administration justice department official prior to being elected governor. Paterson, son of a legendary Harlem political official and the No. 2 executive in the Empire State, was elevated to governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a sex scandal.
Veteran strategist Eddie McDonald has managed and coordinated statewide campaigns for Democrats in presidential election years going back to the Bill Clinton candidacies and helped to lead Jennifer Granholm’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2002 and 2006. He agrees with Archer that electing a black candidate for governor is possible, but the candidate must meet the formula set forth by the former mayor.
McDonald further suggests that fellow blacks may want to think creatively and away from traditional political organizations and toward well-established institutions like black fraternities and sororities to help build the statewide infrastructure necessary to identify and fund a strong candidate.
“We have some very bright and talented individuals out there,” he maintains, “but they have to have the fire in the gut … you want somebody who really wants to do it.”
Meanwhile, Sheffield, whose family has been politically and socially active in Detroit for a century, points out that her contemporaries talk more about the impact of state policy and less about candidates for state chief executive.
“We rarely if ever get around to seriously discussing the prospect or need of electing a black governor,” she says.
KEN COLEMAN IS A DETROIT-BASED WRITER AND THE AUTHOR OF FOUR BOOKS ABOUT BLACK HISTORY IN DETROIT.
Meet the Hopefuls
Bill Cobbs is a Farmington Hills resident who, according to his website, will run on a platform of “putting people first.” His key initiatives are preserving the Great Lakes, improving K-12 education and ensuring clean water for all Michigan residents. Formerly a vice president at Xerox, the Wayne State University alumnus is the founder of Performance Dynamics, which provides “executive coaching and development for employees that have been identified by their employer as high potential executive candidates.”
More at billcobbs2018.com.
Kentiel White is a Southgate resident who works in ambulatory care services. He does not have a website, but according to past Facebook posts, he wishes to rename Detroit’s East English Village Preparatory Academy back to its original name, Finney High School. The Wayne County Community College District and University of Phoenix alumnus has also said he would issue pay cuts for Michigan legislators to pay for road repairs, conduct an internal investigation of the state’s former Driver Responsibility Fee program, enforce the death penalty (which Michigan does not have) for criminals who murder children, and make sex education a graduation requirement for high school students.