SACRAMENTO (CBM) – Following midterm elections that sent their party reeling nationwide, a key bloc of Democratic lawmakers in California saw their numbers swell with victories won by a record number of African-Americans.
With five new members — Autumn Burke, Tony Thurmond, Jim Cooper, Kevin McCarty and Mike Gipson — winning election to the Assembly on Nov. 4, membership in the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC) will soar to an all-time high of 11. That number is widely expected to increase by one after Dec. 9, when a special election has been scheduled to fill the seat vacated by former State Sen. Roderick Wright.
Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, the powerful chair of the CLBC, said the larger number will mean new and valuable perspectives in the caucus, as well as better representation of the diversity that helps define the California experience.
“We are proud to add to our caucus a small business owner, local elected officials and nonprofit leaders who will no doubt shape the policies and programs that our caucus prioritizes — education, expansion of social services, job creation and many other areas,” she said. “We look forward to welcoming them in December.”
Of the CLBC’s new members, two — Cooper and McCarty — won in Sacramento-area districts that had never before elected a black representative.
Sacramento-based political strategist Mel Assagai said Cooper and McCarty, both former city-level office holders, possess distinguished backgrounds and beat out tough competition at the polls. “Both will have an immediate impact on a whole range of public policy issues important to their constituents in the Greater Sacramento Area,” he said.
Cooper, who has previously served as mayor of Elk Grove and a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, was elected in the 9th District. During two terms as mayor and four on the Elk Grove City Council, Cooper helped found the city’s first-ever gang/narcotics unit, established an emergency communications center and increased the number of police officers on neighborhood patrol. He will now represent Elk Grove, Galt, Lodi and portions of Sacramento.
McCarty, a former Sacramento City Council member, will represent the 7th District — which encompasses the outer ring of the northern and eastern Sacramento suburbs. A strong advocate of early childhood education, McCarty has been working with lawmakers looking to win passage of the California Kindergarten Readiness Act.
First-time officeholder Autumn Burke is, in some ways, following a path laid by her mother, Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke — who served as a state legislator, member of Congress and Los Angeles County supervisor. The first woman ever elected in the 62nd District, Burke will represent an area that includes El Segundo, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lennox, Westchester, Marina del Rey, Venice and portions of Gardena and South Los Angeles.
Burke, a businesswoman, is clear about what issues she considers the CLBC should tackle. “We should certainly address recidivism and environmental justice,” she said.
Gipson — who has been elected three times to the Carson City Council and serves as district director for California Board of Equalization Chairman Jerome Horton — will represent the 64th District, which includes Carson, Compton, Wilmington, Rancho Dominguez and portions of Long Beach.
Thurmond was elected in the 15th District, which takes in portions of 12 cities that include Berkeley, Richmond, and Oakland. Having served as senior director of community and government relations for the Oakland-based Lincoln Child Center and a former member of the Richmond City Council and West Contra Costa County School Board, Thurmond is an advocate for the support of at-risk youth, community-oriented public safety and expanded education and job opportunities.
CLBC political director and Assistant Majority Floor Leader Chris Holden noted that the election results showcase California as a diverse and inclusive place with opportunities for all residents. “They show that despite demographic challenges, black candidates continue to win in all parts of the state,” he said. “It also shows that good candidates trump race.”
The new crop of caucus members join Mitchell, Holden and Assembly members Cheryl Brown, Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, Dr. Shirley Weber and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas.
Assagai said the expanded membership in the CLBC is a demonstration of the political intelligence of black candidates and voters. “These candidates and the voter base that supports them have a political acumen that’s vastly underestimated, if not overlooked altogether,” he said. “These candidates — all of the new members of the Legislative Black Caucus — were able to look at their voter bases, their potential supporters and opponents, and devise winning strategies based on what they bring to the electorate. It’s a brilliance that should be both appreciated and applauded.”
Clint Thompson, a medical salesperson who said he takes his right to vote very seriously, is heartened by the knowledge that African-Americans will have an amplified voice in the state legislature.
“It really shows that blacks can have positions of power too,” said the Venice resident. “It’s good to know there are some people making laws that have my same complexion.”