Black Legislative Life in the American States

David M Hedge

David B Conklin


Department of Political Science

University of Florida


            America’s state legislatures have changed considerably in the last several decades.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the mix of individuals who serve as lawmakers.  In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the rate at which women and ethnic and racial minorities serve in what have historically been white male bastions.  In the case of African-Americans, those increases have been particularly dramatic.  Just three decades ago, fewer than 200 blacks served in their state legislatures.  By the year 2000, the number of black legislators had tripled.  The increases in black representation have been particularly dramatic in the South.  In 1969, only 32 blacks served in the legislatures of the eleven states of the Confederacy.  By 1993, the number of blacks serving in those states had grown to 260, an eight-fold increase.

            As the 20th century drew to a close, there was good reason to believe that the character of black legislative life in the American states was undergoing fundamental change.   Research from a number of quarters suggests that by the early 1990s black representation had entered an era of consolidation, as black office holders serving in record numbers sought to achieve, with some success, power and influence within their respective chambers.  Yet by mid-decade political and legal developments, most notably the creation of minority-access-districts and the "Republicanization" of state legislatures following the 1994 elections threatened to offset earlier political gains and to move black legislators into an era of reassessment.   For many, the increasing use of minority-access-districts to elect black lawmakers has created an uneasy tension between descriptive and substantive representation.  In a parallel fashion, Republican victories (and increased partisan competition elsewhere) make black office-holding more problematic by placing black Democrats within the legislative minority, promoting a more conservative policy agenda, and, in some cases, prompting white Democrats to move toward the political center and away from historically black political and policy interests.   Faced with a new set of political challenges, African-American lawmakers frequently find themselves rethinking political strategies and making difficult political choices in order to achieve political influence and represent their constituents. 

            Our paper attempts to elaborate these themes by looking at the evolution of black legislative life over the last two decades.  In doing that, we draw upon the available literature and our own preliminary attempts to assess the current state of black legislative affairs. We begin by describing the character of black representation in the late eighties-early nineties.  We then discuss what we believe are two crucial political developments – the use of minority-access-districts and the “Republicanization” of the states’ legislatures that have moved many black lawmakers to an era of reassessment.

Consolidating Black Gains

            As African-Americans move into their state legislatures in record numbers, the question for black lawmakers and scholars alike is whether increases in the rate of descriptive representation will produce tangible benefits (i.e. substantive representation) for African-Americans. Most analysts agree that simply “being there” is not enough.  For lawmakers (and those who study them) effectively representing black interests requires contending with what Davidson and Grofman (1994: 14) refer to as “third generation issues, ” concerning

“…the extent to which minority elected officials become an integral part of the political process.”  In operational terms, effective substantive representation requires what Brown, Marshall and Tabb (1984) label “political incorporation,” the movement of blacks into positions of power and authority and the ability of minority lawmakers to insert themselves into winning coalitions.

            Research from a number of quarters, the bulk of which reference the late 1980s and early 1990s, suggests that black lawmakers have achieved some power and influence within their respective chambers, but only up to a point.  Studies have found, for example that a sizable number of black lawmakers serve on key committees, as committee chairs, and within their party leadership.  Nearly 60 percent of those legislators surveyed in 1991 by Button and Hedge (1996) reported serving as a committee chair (30 percent) or party leader (28 percent).  Similarly, Haynie (2001) found that significant numbers of black lawmakers served on the so-called prestige committee in the lower houses in Illinois (18 percent) Maryland (22 percent) New Jersey (33 percent) and North Carolina (24 percent) in the late 1980s.  Haynie’s analysis of black political incorporation in those states and Arkansas is especially revealing concerning the extent to which black lawmakers have found a meaningful niche within their legislative chamber.  Haynie created an index of black incorporation for each of the states for 1969, 1979, and 1989.  The index reflected the number of blacks serving in the legislature, their percentage in the Democratic Party (if Democrats were the majority), black seniority levels, and the number of blacks serving as party leaders, as committee chairs, and on prestige committees.  In each of the five states, Haynie discovered a dramatic increase in black political incorporation over the twenty-year period. 

Those findings aside, the available evidence also suggests limits on the extent to which blacks have been incorporated into their state legislatures.  Button and Hedge report a fair amount of disillusionment among black lawmakers with both the party and committee systems.  Nearly twice as many lawmakers reported that they had only a little influence over their party’s affairs than did those reporting a great deal of influence.  Similarly, sizable numbers reported at least some discrimination in party affairs (76 percent) and the committee system (61 percent).  Orey’s (2000) analysis of committee chairmanships in 42 states in 1993-94 indicates that blacks were much less likely than whites to serve as committee chairs.  During that two-year period, African-Americans chaired only 97 of the states’ 1,990 standing house and senate committees. Blacks were particularly underrepresented on prestige committees (fiscal and rules committees). Interestingly enough, the probability that blacks would chair a committee was higher in the South.     

Hedge, Button and Spear’s (1996) and Haynie’s analyses underscore the notion that institutional position matters.  Hedge, Button, and Spear report that more senior members and committee chairs were more likely to believe that they were able to influence their party’s decisions while black committee chairs were more likely to report greater overall black influence within their chamber.  In a parallel fashion, Haynie discovers that increases in black political incorporation produced increases in state spending for health, education, and welfare programs even after controls for the states’ poverty rates and fiscal capacity. [i]

There is also evidence to suggest that black lawmakers bring a distinct policy agenda to their respective chambers.  Bratton and Haynie’s (1999) analysis of bill introduction in six states in 1979 and 1989 indicates that black lawmakers are more likely to introduce legislation focusing on black and women’s interests, education, and welfare policy than are their white counterparts

            The question that remains, of course, is whether blacks have been able to win passage of their legislative priorities.  Here the evidence is less promising.  Case studies from this period reveal that blacks are consistently less likely to pass legislation than their white counterparts.  Table 1 summarizes the findings from case studies of bill passage in five southern states in the late1980s.  As the data reveal, with the notable exception of the North Carolina, black lawmakers were less successful in passing legislation than whites.  Those differences were particularly substantial in Mississippi and South Carolina, where white lawmakers were three times more likely than blacks to pass legislation.  Bratton and Haynie (1999) report similar findings in their multivariate analysis of bill passage. In three of the six states included in their analysis, Arkansas, California and Illinois, increases in black sponsorship yielded lower rates of bill passage.  

It is difficult to account for racial differences in bill passage in the American states, but we suspect that a number of forces are operating.  Some of the differences probably reflect the nature of legislation introduced by blacks, legislation that is often too liberal for their legislative colleagues.  And, as we have seen, differences in bill passage often reflect differences in the rate at which blacks and whites serve in positions of power and authority.  But, we also suspect that some of the differences reflect both overt and subtle racism and discrimination.  As one black member from Mississippi confided in a telephone interview in the early nineties, it was often enough to simply identify a bill as a “nigger bill” to ensure defeat in his state’s legislature.

-- Table One -


            Despite the limits we have noted, it is fair to say that African-American legislators have made substantial progress over the last several decades.  However, events in the mid-nineties threaten to offset some of those gains and, at a minimum, force many black lawmakers to reconsider their


political and legislative strategies.  One such development is the creation of majority-minority districts. As the reader knows, increases in the number of black legislators in the early nineties were primarily the result of pressures from the Department of Justice to create legislative districts that ensured blacks would win office.  Given patterns of racial voting the solution was simple – create legislative districts with a majority of black voters.  Many states did so with a vengeance. The results are dramatic.  Following redistricting in the 1990s, the number of blacks serving in their state legislatures increased from 416 in 1990 to 523 by 1993 and nearly 600 by the end of the decade (Bullock, 2001). 

            Those districts have been challenged on a number of grounds.  Some whites maintain that black majority districts represent a form of reverse discrimination and violate the equal protection clause.  Others submit that majority minority districts actually disadvantage blacks.  Many contend, for example, that pulling black voters out of surrounding Democratic districts and packing them in new majority-minority districts reduces the overall influence of blacks by reducing the amount of aggregate support for black interests within the legislature.  As black Democrats are pulled out of surrounding districts, those “bleached” districts potentially fall into Republican hands. Even where those districts remain Democratic, members have less incentive to respond to minority interests as the number of black voters dwindle within the old district.  In either case, there is a net loss in the number of legislators willing to support legislation advantaging black voters. In addition, Guiner (1994) fears that the creation of minority districts will further add to white resentment toward black legislators, particularly where there is a sense that black gains came at the party’s expense.   Others maintain that there is simply no need to create minority districts.  Swain (1995) maintains, for example, that blacks are increasingly capable of winning seats in white majority districts.  Swain also contends that white lawmakers can represent black interests.  Lublin (1997) makes a similar point by arguing that the interest of black citizens can be achieved in “black influence” districts, i.e. districts with a sizable number but not a majority of black voters.

            How the issue of minority districts has played out at the state level is difficult to determine.  Much of the research on the impact of majority-minority districts looks at the U.S. Congress (see, most notably Swain, 1995; Lublin 1997; and Whitby 1997) despite the fact that most majority minority districts were created at the state level.  Nonetheless, what evidence is available suggests that those districts have been a mixed blessing for black state legislators.  As we have seen, the creation of majority-minority districts during the 1990s redistricting dramatically increased the number of black lawmakers, particularly in the South.  Bullock’s (1992) analysis of black office holding in the 1980s demonstrates just how important minority districts have been.  According to his analysis, throughout the 1980s no black legislator was elected in the states of Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina from a district that was less than 50 percent black. Elsewhere, the “tipping point” necessary to elect black legislators was 30-40 percent black. 

            The impact of minority districts on substantive representation is less clear.  On the one hand, Bratton and Haynie’s research on agenda setting underscores the importance of black lawmakers for representing black interests.  Black lawmakers bring a unique set of policy preferences to their legislatures and, as a result, increase the likelihood that issues of importance to blacks will be placed on the agenda. 

            On the other hand, the creation of black districts has probably further isolated blacks from white Democrats in the South.  In the first instance, the process of creating those districts in the early 1990s produced strange alliances.  During that period, blacks frequently found themselves pitted against their Democratic colleagues and aligned with Republicans in lawsuits filed by Democrats that challenged the use of minority districts.  Republican support was blatantly partisan.  Creating black districts essentially wasted Democratic votes by packing them in the new districts and made it easier for Republicans to capture surrounding districts.  Another way that minority districts contribute to tensions among black and white lawmakers is by making their districts even more distinct in terms of the kinds of constituents and interests they represent.  Hedge, Button, and Spear’s analysis of black lawmakers in the early nineties illustrates the difficulties representatives of black majority districts face. Members serving majority-minority districts reported less influence in party affairs, were less satisfied with their committee assignments, and were more likely to report that blacks have little influence in their legislature’s affairs.  

            Those lessons have apparently not been lost on black lawmakers as they have addressed the latest round of redistricting.  In at least some instances, blacks have worked with white Democrats to create minority districts with fewer black voters, so that Democrats in surrounding districts will have a better chance of retaining or recapturing those seats. In New Jersey, minority legislators joined with Democratic officials to “unpack” heavily black districts around Newark, a strategy that some believe resulted in Democrats capturing the state assembly for the first time a decade.  Similar attempts have been made elsewhere, including Georgia and Mississippi but with less success in the latter state (Cohen, New York Times, Sunday, March 24, 2002).

            A second major development in the mid-nineties and one we believe also has major implications for the quality of black life is what we have labeled the “Republicanization” of state legislatures.  The historic Republican victories in the U.S. Congress in 1994 were matched in many state legislatures.  In 1990 Democrats controlled 73 of the 98 partisan legislative chambers.   Following the 1994 elections that number had dropped to just 48.  Republican gains have been particularly notable in the South.  Currently, Republicans control both houses in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia, the Texas Senate, and are within striking distance in the Texas and North Carolina Assemblies and the Tennessee Senate. 

          Again we know little about the impact of partisan changes on the quality of black legislative life and the ability of black lawmakers to represent minority interests. Some tentative conclusions are warranted however.  First, it seems reasonably clear that many blacks have lost what positions of power and authority they might have had prior to Republican control.  In 1992, 91 percent of black lawmakers were members of their chamber’s majority party.   By the end of the decade that percentage had dropped to 68 percent.  More telling is a comparison of the rate at which blacks hold positions of authority within their legislatures over the last two decades.  As the data in Tables 2 and 3 reveal, the number of blacks serving as party leaders or committee chairs rose sharply between 1984 and1991 only to decline somewhat between 1991 and 1999 (outside of the South).   The data from the South demonstrate, however, that changes in the rate at which blacks hold influence in their legislatures is more variable than the national findings would suggest.  In four states – Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee – black lawmakers lost positions of power over the decade.  Elsewhere, most notably Alabama and North Carolina, blacks actually held substantially more chairmanships by the end of the nineties.

-- Tables Two and Three --

            Second, the changing political and policy climate of the states has led many blacks (and white) to reassess their role within the Democratic Party and their support for recent conservative policy initiatives. Florida’s black lawmakers have done just that for the last several years. The Republican capture of the state legislature in the middle part of the decade challenged the state’s black legislative delegation to rethink their place within the Democratic Party and their relationship with Florida Republicans.  The opportunity to do so came quickly.  In January 1998, House Democrats ousted House speaker-designate Representative Willie Logan, an African-American from Dade County and replaced him with white representative Ann Mackenzie.  Although House Democrats maintained that replacing Logan reflected not race, but his limits as a fund-raiser and leader in the conservative chamber, members of the black caucus charged otherwise.   Black representative Cynthia Chestnut  (D. Gainesville) labeled the ouster “blatant racism”  (St. Louis Post Dispatch, January 25, 1988, p. 5B) and warned:

“We’re having a divorce in the family.  The black family member has been taken for granted. And when you have a member of the family who has been taken for granted, you are likely to lose that family member.  I think African-Americans across this state will need to reassess where they are today.” (St. Petersburg Times, January 14, 1998, p. A10). 


For many within the caucus, Logan’s ouster freed black legislators from any obligation to support their fellow Democrats.  Logan would subsequently endorse Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush in the 1998 election and would run as an independent for the U.S. Senate in 2000.  St. Petersburg representative Rudy Bradley simply switched parties.  More typically, black legislators chose to remain within the Democratic Party but showed an increased willingness to cross the aisle.   For their part, Republican leaders were quick to take advantage of schisms within

the Democratic ranks by offering black legislators increased staff, policy influence and legislative pork in return for their support.

            Any hopes Republicans leaders might have had of gaining black support were no doubt dashed as a result of subsequent political developments – Jeb Bush’s One Florida plan to end affirmative action and the 2000 presidential election.  Shortly after the governor issued an executive order banning the use of race as a factor in university admissions, two black legislators, Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Sen. Anthony Hill of Jacksonville, staged a sit-in in the governor’s office.   And, of course, Republican efforts to prevent a recount and redress of the 2000 presidential vote in Florida were viewed by many in the black community as a partisan attempt to dilute the black vote.

            The experiences of black legislators in Wisconsin reveal similar dilemmas and choices.  Over the past two decades, Wisconsin has been a leader in welfare and education reform.  In some cases, members like Milwaukee black representatives Polly Williams and Antonia Riley have bought into Republican efforts.  Representative Williams has supported Milwaukee’s innovative voucher program from the very beginning despite the criticism of others within the caucus.  Representative Riley is actually credited with offering legislation that would eventually become foundation of the state’s work-based welfare initiative.  Others, most notably state senator Qwendolynne  Moore, have been staunch opponents of each of those programs.   For many blacks in Wisconsin and elsewhere the issue frequently comes down to whether white officials can be trusted.  In spring of 1998, then Governor Tommy Thompson proposed a state takeover of the Milwaukee schools, ostensibly because the Milwaukee school board had not given him what he wanted on the school voucher program.  During a hastily called meeting between representatives from the Governor’s office and local political and school officials, one black lawmaker turned and asked….”can I trust these people?”

            While the Republican victories in the last few years have made political life more difficult for many blacks, King-Meadows and Schaller (1999) usefully remind us that recent partisan developments also hold out opportunities for black influence.  As those authors note:

            …as state legislatures become more two-party competitive, the ability of black legislative caucuses to exercise decisive, coalition-building power may actually increase because black legislators are more likely to serve as the swing voting bloc. (p. 2)



                A cursory look at the evolution of black lawmakers over the last three decades provide support for our notion that the character of black legislative life has undergone fundamental change in the last several years.  As the political and legal environment within which blacks must run and serve has changed, so too has the quality of black legislative life. The most visible changes have been in terms of the loss, by blacks, of majority party status and positions of institutional authority.  We also suspect that changes in the mid-nineties created tensions among black and white Democratic lawmakers and forced each to reconsider the role black lawmakers play within the party and the legislature.  At the same time, the creation of new, black majority districts and the increase in interparty competition represent potential opportunities for blacks to form new alliances and to exercise political influence as increasingly sizable voting blocs.

            Our review of black representation over the last decade also points to the need for more, and more recent, research.  As we note earlier, much of the research on the quality of black legislative life focuses on the late 1980s and early 1990s.  As insightful as those studies are, recent developments suggest the need to revisit the questions they addressed.   Moreover, other changes are likely to impact on black legislative life, including demographic changes in states like Florida, Texas, and California and the term limits that have been enacted in nearly half the American states. 


1 Parenthetically, Nelson (1991) found few positive relationships between his measure of potential black influence and public policy outputs during the mid-eighties.  Indeed, he discovers an inverse relationship between potential influence and state spending on education and social services.




Table One – Bill Passage in Selected States 1987-88



                                                Black                       White*


Georgia                                  33%                              62%                          

Mississippi                           13                                  40

North Carolina                     62                                  51

South Carolina                8                           23

Virginia                                 38                                  56



*random sample of white lawmakers


Source:  Clemons and Jones (Virginia), Holmes (Georgia) Orey (Mississippi), Sullivan (North Carolina) Legette (South Carolina) in  Charles Jones, ed.  2000, “Special Issue:  African American State Legislative Politics,” Journal of Black Studies. 30:6





Table Two --Black Lawmakers and Positions of Authority1

1984        1991         1999

All States                   Total                 79            156           114


Southern States                  Total                       22                 49                 68

                                          Alabama                   6                   9                  16

                                  Arkansas           1               1               1

                                          Florida                     0                   4                   1

                                  Georgia             3               9               6

                                          Louisiana                  2                   4                   3

                                          Mississippi                2                   4                   8

                                          N. Carolina              1                   7                  16

                                          S. Carolina               2                   1                   2

                                          Tennessee                3                   6                   4

                                  Texas                 1               4               6

                                  Virginia             1               0               5


1 – Total of number of committee chairmanships, speakerships, president pro tem’s, whips (majority and minority), assistant whips (majority and minority), planning positions, and caucusing positions




Table Three -- # of Black Committee Chairs – 1984, 1991, 1999


                                                                     1984                1991         1999


All States                               Total                    63                110               102


Southern States                     Total                    20                 45                 62

                                    Alabama         6               9              16

                                             Arkansas               1                   1                   1

                                    Florida            0               3               0

                                             Georgia                 3                   8                   5

                                             Louisiana               2                   4                   3

                                             Mississippi             2                   4                   7

                                             N. Carolina           1                   7                  16

                                             S. Carolina            1                   1                   1

                                             Tennessee             2                   5                   3

                                             Texas                    1                   3                   5

                                             Virginia                  1                         0                   5




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