By Barrington M. Salmon,
Shiela Harmon Martin said she recently got two very pleasant surprises within days of each other when Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced that they are joining the race to become America’s next president.
Harris, a former San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general, set off serious buzz after her announcement and African Americans have been digging into her law enforcement record and perusing her policy platforms and prior statements in order to discover what type of president she might be.
Martin, division chair and professor of political science at the University of the District of Columbia, said she hopes and expects both black senators to do well.
“I hope one of them emerges as the top contender and at a minimum in second place,” Martin said. “African Americans have been the most loyal constituency to the Democratic Party. I don’t feel that because we had one African-American president we shouldn’t have another one for the next 20 years…Hopefully the Democratic pool will look like America.”
Because both candidates have been watched by political observers for years, their formal announcements may also impact the strength of the electorate, Martin says. She hopes their candidacies will lead to increased voter registrations and voter turnout in black communities.
The announcements of Harris and Booker are already attracting the attention of people from diverse walks of life.
Rev. Derrick Harkins, national director of Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Committee who served as a faith issue advisor to the Obama campaign, says both Harris and Booker will soar because of what will prove to be energetic campaigns and their donors and support will be competitive. But Harris’ first move may have given her an advantage. And the number and the excitement of the people who showed up for her Oakland announcement was reminiscent of the Obama enthusiasm.
“The energy and focus around her announcement was impressive. I haven’t seen that energy and momentum in other people,” Harkins said. “This was important to her and those waiting in the wings.”
However, political observers agree that no contender – at least not in the near future – will rise to the euphoria of the candidacy of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.
“2008 was lightning in a bottle,” Harkins noted. “The energy, fervor and enthusiasm won’t probably be replicated in our lifetime…We’re in a different place. For them, it will probably be more ‘retail,’ pushing people out there. They have to mobilize, organize to make sure people will come out.”
“There is always the down side for both candidates. Because Harris has such a long record, even as a first-term senator, she is already being buffeted by scrutiny and criticism,” said political analyst and media commentator Avis Jones-DeWeever.
“Her challenge is that she has a long and controversial record, I will admit. But she’s being held to an extremely high level of scrutiny,” Jones-DeWeever says.
Jones-DeWeever also points out that Harris has ties to the ‘system’ that raises a lot of people’s suspicions.
“I think she needs to lay out her own criminal justice agenda, have a specific speech on this, spell out the issues and detail what she’ll do going forward,” said Jones-DeWeever, who is president and CEO of the consulting firm, Incite Unlimited, LLC. “We have to be careful not to be over-critical and not hold her to a different standard. A lot of people aren’t asking this of other candidates.”
But, for African Americans in many quarters, Harris has struck the right chord in the way she entered the race with the announcement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day; her first news conference held at her alma mater, Howard University; and her ability to draw a large crowd to her formal announcement at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall in her hometown of Oakland, CA. She also got kudos for her remark in front of her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorors in South Carolina.
But in walks the popular orator and politician Sen. Corey Booker.
Kansas City resident and political observer Emily Brown says Booker’s entrance into the presidential fray surprised her.
“I followed Sen. Booker as mayor. He’s an excellent senator, very strong,” she said. “I was shocked that he’s running but having multiple candidates of color is a very positive thing. I’ve never seen a more diverse group running. We saw that in the midterms. I am concerned but think she’s a strong candidate.”
Gloria Murry-Ford said she recently met Booker at a fundraiser for former Georgia State Rep. Stacey Adams and left impressed.
“I took a selfie with him. He’s a very nice, very personable, very smart man,” she said. “I know he’s a Rhodes Scholar but I don’t know a lot about him and I don’t know how he’s doing. They are two powerful black people. I watched Sen. Harris. I saw the town hall and liked what I saw. I think she’s smart, she’s good, knows what questions to ask and has gotten her message together. She had a great rollout.”
Murry-Ford, a former CNN reporter and now a communications expert specializing in crisis management and strategic communications in Washington, DC, said she was less than impressed with the junior New Jersey senator’s announcement.
“Booker’s rollout was light,” she said. “Standing at a chain link fence? Optics is important and his optics weren’t as great. She had a great roll out. It was magnificent. She claimed her blackness. It’s not bad to be black anymore. With him it was a different atmosphere. He’s got to nail down his message, tighten up stuff.”
Political scientist Harmon Martin said she’s confident that Booker and Harris will campaign well, even as they deal with the rough and tumble nature of politics and the often coarse and abrasive criticism and attacks that come with it.
“Hey, cheers to Sen. Harris and Sen. Booker,” she said. “I’m a little biased because she’s my soror. She’s an African-American woman and attended an HBCU. I really like Booker too. He’s an outstanding choice, a good mayor, committed to black people. I despise when people place a litmus test on whose black enough. Allow both candidates to do well, and may the best woman win.”
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