Why we are not in office

Dec 6, 2017 at 10:27 am
African-Americans in Kentucky public office

For LEO’s White Issue, I am turning over the column to my friend James Penny. —Aaron Yarmuth

African-Americans make up 9 percent of Kentucky’s population, according to 2016 census data. So why don’t we hold at least 9 percent of elected positions statewide? Besides all of the more racially-inflammatory reasons, I’ll touch on two ways those outside of the political establishment are discouraged from entering politics in Kentucky.

Economics and experience.

Getting into politics isn’t cheap. Beyond the filing fees, fundraising is the big hitter. Fundraising generates money for advertising across multiple mediums and pays for the staff and analyses on who to target to attain votes. Raising said money successfully is about targeted networking and sometimes trading favors. You may have 1,000-plus Facebook friends, but if the majority of them aren’t of means, or support your political positions, then you’re dead in the water.

From a 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance from the Economic Policy Institute, we know there is a huge disparity of wealth between whites and African-Americans. Sometimes as much as seven times the wealth favoring the former in today’s America. So if you don’t have the discretionary income to fund a candidate, this exempts you from getting invited to fundraisers and largely keeps you from getting a seat at the political table in Kentucky.

On the flip side, the 2015 gubernatorial election raised $10.7 million between both Matt Bevin and Jack Conway, where Conway earned nearly double that of Bevin. Would a state like Kentucky ever raise as much for an African-American gubernatorial candidate? Perhaps if Lieutenant Gov. Jenean Hampton decides to run for governor, we’ll find out.

Beyond financing and running a successful campaign, experience plays a key part in getting votes. Experience should yield trust. But if you don’t know any African-Americans, then how do you learn to trust in them? If you follow only the stereotypical images of us being thugs who need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, then you can’t see us sitting in the Governor’s Mansion.

How does all of this make me feel as an African-American male who works every day to break the stereotype? This generates a passionate, yet internal, call to action, rooted in a belief that we as humans can do better. It can be a slippery slope when all groups aren’t represented in circles of power. This can lead to a disconnect between those in power and their constituents, abuse of power or, at worst, discriminatory issues such as redlining or gentrification.

On the other hand, African-Americans aren’t the only people who are underrepresented in Kentucky politics. Women have proven themselves as valuable business leaders and competent elected officials. Does fundraising discourage them? Maybe.

Or is it the perception around experience? In 2017, women are still stereotyped as weak, incapable of making smart decisions, constantly engaged in gossip and hearsay, utterly incompetent and less intelligent. These stereotypes are just that and can lead voters who still buy into the patriarchy, to automatically vote for a man, regardless of his qualifications, experience and character. The 2016 presidential election proved that, as a state, Kentucky trusts a politically-inexperienced white male over an experienced white female.

Thankfully, there is hope.

I know two CEOs in Kentucky, Jennifer Hancock of Volunteers of America, Mid States and Sadiqa Reynolds of the Louisville Urban League who leave the stereotypes of old in the dust. Should either of these two ladies run for an office, let the state beware!

What’s really stopping those outside of the normal political establishment from running in more elections in Kentucky? Absolutely nothing. The election of Bevin’s running mate, Jenean Hampton, to lieutenant-governor in 2015, proves the glass ceiling can be broken. Sadly, Hampton is only the third African-American woman to serve as lieutenant-governor of any state in the U.S.

But we know that Earth as a whole still has catching up to do regarding those outside of the political establishment in power, if fans of BBC’s “Doctor Who” are still upset that the upcoming 13th Doctor will be played by a woman, or upset that a shopping mall would choose an African-American to serve as Santa Claus for the holidays.

Would those outside of the political establishment serve our old Kentucky home any worse than those from within the political establishment? Perhaps when Kentuckians stop voting against their own interests, we’ll find out.