OAKLAND — In the heart of downtown, at the corner of 14th and Clay, stands the Elihu Harris state office building, a high-rise monument to the city's former Sacramento representative and mayor.
On the 22nd floor of the stone-and-glass tower sits the office of Wilma Chan, the freshman lawmaker who helped thwart Harris' bid to reclaim his old Assembly seat in November.
Harris is black, a symbol of California's political past. Chan is Asian American and an embodiment of California's future--a political future that looks increasing bleak for African Americans.
At a time when Latino power is exploding across the state and a swelling Asian population is gaining clout, blacks are losing political ground from Sacramento to South-Central Los Angeles.
Almost 20 years ago, California nearly elected the nation's first black governor. Today, there are just four blacks serving in the 80-member Assembly--the same as the number of Latino Republicans. There are only two African Americans in the 40-member state Senate. Not a single black legislator serves a district north of Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard.
Few are ready to declare blacks endangered as a political species in California--not when African Americans remain so vital to the Democratic Party.
But many are alarmed by the dramatic erosion of black clout. They fear that the political system will grow less responsive to the state's roughly 2.5 million African Americans and fret that African Americans, in turn, will grow increasingly alienated from the political system.
"You have a population that feels very disenfranchised to begin with," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist. "And this is a trend that's getting worse, not better."
Much of the decline stems from sweeping shifts in population. Here, truly, demography is political destiny.
California's black population stayed about the same over the past decade, the last census showed, while the number of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders grew more than 35%. Blacks are now just about 6% of California's population, while Latinos make up roughly a third and Asian Americans about 12%.
At the same time, voter participation has surged among Latinos and Asian Americans, as more residents become U.S. citizens and get politically involved. In contrast, black registration and voting rates fell during the 1990s.
The results are plain to see. In 1984, there were 460 Latino officeholders statewide, a figure that grew to 789 in 1998, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The ranks of Asian American officials grew from 106 in 1980 to 503 in 1998. But the number of African American officeholders barely budged, inching from 233 to 240 in the same 18-year span.
That stagnation is particularly striking given the national trend: Across the country, the number of black elected officials rose 76% between 1980 and 1998, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.
And the pattern in California is likely to continue, as aging whites and African Americans are supplanted by growing numbers of young Latinos and Asians.
Term Limits, Bias Cited as Factors
Important as they are, however, demographic shifts are just part of the explanation for the dramatic decline in black power. Term limits have forced African Americans from jobs they might have held for life. At the same time, black leaders have failed to groom many candidates able to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, the way Latino lawmakers have.
Racial prejudice also plays a part, as does the more conservative tenor of the times.
"When the '90s came along, you had the L.A. riots and a backlash against the entitlement programs associated with black mayors," said Steve Erie of UC San Diego, who cited Chicago, New York, Oakland and Los Angeles among the major cities that elected whites to replace African American mayors.
To some, the declining ranks of black officialdom are no great cause for concern. They say the trend has resulted from political maturation and greater sophistication on the part of African American voters.
"The symbolic benefit of [electing] 'one of your own' is kind of marginal now," said Robert Smith, a San Francisco State expert on black politics. "You're replacing black liberals with Latino liberals, so the policy outcome is not major."
But others suggest that something is inevitably lost any time a group of people is represented by someone lacking the same background and sensibilities.
"It means leaving up to others the decisions that affect you," said Keith Carson, an African American in his third term on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. "It means letting others speak on your behalf."
If there was ever a heyday for black political power in California, it began in the late 1960s. Over a 10-year period, Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond installed their first black mayors.