There have only been 2 Black elected governors in US history, but the 2022 midterm elections could usher in unparalleled change

Five black politicians in the foreground and a blue background with the Virginia statehouse and flag
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  • There have only been two Black elected governors in US history, but that could change on Tuesday.

  • Insider spoke with Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Maryland's Wes Moore about their bids.

  • Black candidates often face questions about electability in the gubernatorial nomination process.

When L. Douglas Wilder won the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election, he had already shattered a major barrier four years earlier by becoming the state's first Black lieutenant governor.

In the 1980s, Virginia's rapidly-growing suburbs were becoming major centers of power in the legislature, but the Commonwealth's rural heartland, filled with the sorts of conservative Democrats who once formed the backbone of the party, remained a critical part of Wilder's calculus for winning the highest office in state government.

Wilder, who had catapulted into office as a state senator representing a Richmond-anchored district, knew he would have to appeal to as many voters as possible in his bid to be governor of a state whose capital city was formerly the seat of the Confederacy.

With the victory, Wilder became the first Black elected governor in the United States, generations after P.B.S. Pinchback had briefly served as the acting governor of Louisiana from December 1872 to January 1873 during Reconstruction.

Wilder left office at the end of his term in January 1994, but it wasn't until November 2006 that another state elected the second Black governor — Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

Recalling a conversation he had with Wilder, Patrick said, "Wilder told me probably my favorite introduction of all the time while I was in office. He said people brag about him as the first Black governor elected in America. He said being first doesn't mean a thing unless there's a second. I think it's such an important point."

Patrick, who served in office from 2007 to 2015, told Insider the pipeline for Black candidates must be developed "more broadly than other elected officials," given the questions about electability faced by nominees in the past.

In five states across the country, Black candidates are featured on the November ballot as major-party gubernatorial nominees — Stacey Abrams of Georgia; Wes Moore of Maryland; Deidre DeJear of Iowa; Yolanda Flowers of Alabama; and Chris Jones of Arkansas.

On Tuesday, voters could reshape the number of Black governors holding office in the US. But the journey in many ways remains difficult.

Doug Wilder
Then-Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, right, share the podium with then-Virginia Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, center, and then-Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, left, after the three were sworn in at the state Capitol in Richmond, Va., on January 11, 1986.AP Photo/Steve Helber

A pipeline for Black candidates

Over the course of 40 years, there have been several Black candidates who aimed for governorships and came up short as general election candidates, including Tom Bradley — the first Black mayor of Los Angeles who narrowly lost to Republican George Deukmejian in the 1982 California gubernatorial election — and Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives who was narrowly edged out by now-GOP Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia in the state's 2018 gubernatorial contest.

There are other notable examples.

Former US Rep. Cleo Fields, who in 1995 was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Louisiana, was defeated by GOP nominee Mike Foster by over 25 points.

Republican Ken Blackwell sought the Ohio governorship in 2006 but lost decisively to then-Democratic US Rep. Ted Strickland.

Former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came up short to now-GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida in 2018. And that same year, former NAACP president Ben Jealous was unable to oust incumbent GOP Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland.

The number of Black governors currently sits at zero.

Other Black candidates have also fallen short in their gubernatorial bids, having been stymied by infrastructural barriers within their respective parties — including the lack of robust fundraising — or the absence of compelling messages that would encourage voters to take a risk on them.

Patrick — who served as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was an assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in the Department of Justice before serving as governor — told Insider that his first race had an "insider-outsider dynamic" that helped him stand out among more established candidates.

"Most people were feeling that Beacon Hill was really about the neighborhood around Beacon Hill and not focused elsewhere," the former governor said, referring to the affluent area of Boston that is the nexus of state government. "So we ran a grassroots campaign for both practical and sort of philosophical reasons: Practical, because that was the only way an outsider was going to break in, and philosophical, because it was the only way I could think of to express an understanding that most people felt like outsiders needed to be invited to make a political future of their own."

Wes Moore
Maryland Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore speaks with supporters in Baltimore, Md., on September 6, 2022.AP Photo/Bryan Woolston

'Is that the one that looks like me?'

It used to be that virtually all Black lawmakers were relegated to highly-gerrymandered districts that often left them at a disadvantage when it came time to seek higher office; they often had little name identification and scant relationships with party brokers who helped candidates navigate tough primaries.

However, this year, Black gubernatorial candidates weren't overly reliant on the party leadership to help them land the nominations in their respective states.

Abrams, who is locked with Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 gubernatorial contest, has sought to appeal to the state's growing Gen Z and millennial populations — while also stumping for support in urban and suburban communities that allowed her to come within 55,000 votes of winning four years ago. And the former lawmaker's work for Fair Fight, the voting-rights organization widely credited with helping elect Democratic Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff last year, has endeared her to legions of grassroots activists.

DeJear, Jones, and Flowers are running in states that have a decidedly Republican lean and Black populations that fall below 30 percent.

Moore — a Johns Hopkins-educated Rhodes Scholar and Army veteran who as a first-time candidate defeated veteran state Comptroller Peter Franchot and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez in a Democratic primary — would be Maryland's first Black governor if he triumphs over GOP state Del. Dan Cox on Tuesday.

During a conversation with Moore on his campaign bus last month, he told Insider he appreciated the significance of representation — as he would also be only the third Black governor since the country's founding if elected. Moore then told the story of a union leader who attended an event where he would be featured; the leader's grandson quickly recognized his name.

"He said to her, 'Is that the one that looks like me?' And she's like, 'Yeah, that's the one that looks like you.' Especially when you consider the history of this state, it's very humbling," Moore said.

"This is the state of Harriet Tubman. This is the state of Frederick Douglass. This is the state of Thurgood Marshall. This is the state of redlining. This is the state of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War," he continued.

But Moore was also clear that he's not running for the sake of a historical milestone but to enact policies that will improve the lives of Marylanders.

"The making history is not lost on me, but that's not the assignment. At the end of the day, if that's what I accomplished, that's not enough," Moore told Insider. "If I can focus on things like making child poverty history — if I can do things like that, then I think I actually understood the assignment of why this moment mattered."

Stacey Abrams
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.AP Photo/John Bazemore

'It's about tomorrow and what you show people is possible'

Larry Sabato — the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and a longtime expert on the state's political history — recounted to Insider that Wilder's campaigns for higher office in 1980s-era Virginia were met with pushback from some Democratic Party leaders.

"Particularly for lieutenant governor, they were convinced he was going to sink the ticket," he said of Wilder's 1985 statewide campaign alongside then-gubernatorial candidate Gerald Baliles and then-attorney general candidate Mary Sue Terry. "And they convinced me and a lot of other people that Virginia wasn't ready. Well, he proved otherwise."

In the years since Wilder and Patrick served in office, Black candidates have made major strides in Congress, with lawmakers like Democratic Reps. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Joe Neguse of Colorado having been elected in districts without large minority populations. And there are now 58 current members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, told Insider that a House seat held by a Black politician generally has offered less mobility to jump to an open Senate seat.

"What could be a launchpad for white politicians has in many instances been a plateau for Black politicians. What's ended up happening for Black members of the House of Representatives is they peak politically at the House," she said. "They gain seniority if their party is in power; that usually puts them in a position, particularly if they're Democrats based on how Democrats tend to run the chamber."

There are currently three Black senators serving in the upper chamber — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Warnock. There have only been 11 Black senators in US history.

Patrick told Insider there is "power in example."

"It's not about us and it's not about now it's not about me. It's about tomorrow and what you show people is possible," Patrick said.

Read the original article on Business Insider