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"I Am a Product of The Voting Rights Act!,"

by Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney January/February 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

A lot of people, particularly conservatives, are busy interpreting my reelection to Congress this month as proof positive that majority-minority districts of the kind fostered by the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary to ensure fair representation of minorities on Capitol Hill. The attorney who successfully dismantled my old majority-black district in Georgia has stated publicly that he intends to use my victory as a weapon to dismantle even more such districts at the state and county level.

Well, it's true that I won with 59% of the vote (better than Newt Gingrich and most of the Georgia delegation) to become the first and only black woman in the South to win from a 65% majority-white district. But the fact is that I won because of the majority-minority district that I used to represent, not in spite of it. That majority-black district gave voters the opportunity to elect someone like me who had only $38,000 to spend against a well-funded establishment candidate in the Democratic primary four years ago. Representing that majority-minority district for 3 1/2 years enabled me to develop a track record, name recognition, and the local and national contacts necessary to raise the nearly $1 million I spent to win in the new 4th district.

The old 11th district was a highly integrated one (60% black and 40% white) that gave me a chance to depolarize race relations in rural Georgia, prove myself as a member of
Congress and expose both black and white voters to activist representation from a black elected official. Hence, my victory says more about the power of incumbency than anything else. Proof of this lies in the fact that all of Georgia's incumbents were reelected.

The new court-drawn district I ran in spread out black voters into Republican districts, making GOP incumbents highly vulnerable to Democratic challengers. But even with the shuffling of literally hundreds of thousands of black voters into Republican districts - and a political climate most favorable to Democrats - not a single Republican incumbent was defeated in the state of Georgia.

This must have come as a huge disappointment to Georgia's Democratic Party bosses, who worked long and hard to dismantle my district and Rep. Sanford Bishop's majority-black district in the hopes of using those black voters as spare parts for their aging Dixiecrat political machine. They woke up Nov. 6 to find that the delegation still consisted of eight Republicans and three Democrats.
Georgia's majority-black districts were squarely blamed for the loss of Democrats in 1994, even though those districts were in place before the 1992 elections. But the real reason Georgia Democrats lost in 1994 was not because of majority-black districts but because too many Democrats were running on Republican platforms. Now that the majority-minority districts are all but gone, who will the state party blame this time?

The real test of whether majority-minority districts are still necessary will come from the minority candidates
dates who vie for the seat after me. It may very well be the case that attitudes in the South have changed for the better. But one thing is certain: Representing the old 11th district allowed me to run and win in the new 4th district without having to change my views, my gold tennis shoes or my braids, or having to auction off my principles to the highest bidder.

While commentators were describing me as "too liberal" to win in my new district and predicting my defeat, the voters were looking at my record and listening to my defense of working and middle-class families. But without the ability to represent the old 11th district and develop a political profile, I would have been largely unknown to voters in the new 4th district, and unlikely to win election.

So as these same commentators now spin my victory as proof that majority-minority districts should be dismantled, I say, think again. Don't use my victory to gut the Voting Rights Act, because I am a product of the Voting Rights Act!

Notes:

Redrawing of Congressional districts was undertaken by state legislatures around the country, starting in 1991 (and under pressure from the Bush Administration Justice Dept.), in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act and increase the chances of electing Black candidates. A series of Supreme Court decisions struck some of those districts down prior to the 1996 elections. In fact, Black Congressional candidates did very well last November in the redrawn districts, including several who won in districts where the Black population was less than 40%. Opponents of redistricting -generally, the same persons and groups who oppose affirmative action and other race-conscious remedies to counter racism - have pointed to these results as proof that racially polarized voting is disappearing from the US electoral scene. One of those who won in a newly drawn district that changed her base from majority-minority to minority-minority was Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Her response to those claims and her analysis of her success are offered in this "op-ed" from the Nov. 26, 1996, Washington Post. (See the related Advocacy Update on cumulative voting on p. 8.)

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