The Trickle-Down Theory of Obama

“I’m hoping the election of Barack Obama will dispel the fear of a black planet,” said Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn. “We don’t discuss it in polite circles, but some white voters fear that a black official would just help black communities.

“I’m hoping things have changed,” he said.

“I’m hoping the election of Barack Obama will dispel the fear of a black planet,” said Democratic State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn. “We don’t discuss it in polite circles, but some white voters fear that a black official would just help black communities.

“I’m hoping things have changed,” he said.

As it happens, New York City may have a mayor’s race next year that mirrors at least one aspect of this year’s historic Democratic primary, in which the three most prominent candidates were a black man, a white man and a white woman. It’s too soon to tell whether, let alone how, a prospective Obama victory in November—coupled with the unexpected recent elevation of David Paterson to the governorship—would affect the racial dynamic in a mayoral contest that is likely to come down to City Comptroller Bill Thompson, Representative Anthony Weiner and Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

But the very possibility of it happening has already become a part of the city’s everyday political dialogue.

Speaking at a press conference at City Hall about reforming police procedures in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting, Al Sharpton said, “I also think that as we talk about change and change is in the air, we will not feel complete until change has occurred. I’ve told Senator Obama and I’ve told brother Paterson that it is an awesome day to live to see the Democratic nominee a man of color, and to see a man sitting in the governor’s seat a man of color, but if at the end of the day we can’t protect the Sean Bells, it means nothing. We do not want symbolism, and call that change. We want substantive change; otherwise, we will be recycling the ’70s and ’80s, when we had an array of black mayors and nothing changed.”

“Presidential races can have an enormous impact on mayoral races,” said Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union.

Looking at 2009, Mr. Siegel said, “It’ll have an enormous impact, because if Obama wins, it’ll be a huge, huge boost for Bill Thompson. The African-American electorate will be tremendously energized. Tremendously energized.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who worked with Mr. Thompson in the past and is expected to do so again, said Mr. Obama’s nomination would bring in a whole new crop of voters that are likely to support Mr. Thompson. “It will increase registration very, very significantly and will energize young black voters.”

When asked if voters would really see anything of Mr. Obama in Mr. Thompson, who is well liked but who is not particularly known for ana electrifying presence on the stump, Mr. Sheinkopf said, “There is a little bit of Obama in anybody who is not decrepit. He’s black, he’s smart, he’s personable.”

“It is the fact that Obama was nominated that tells us that blackness, per se, does not matter,” he added. “Look where the votes came from. That is not solely the issue by which decisions are made by people.”

But it’s that very fact—that race seems to be less of an issue than ever—that makes it so hard to predict how the election of other black officials to higher office would trickle down to the New York mayoral race.

Michael Oliva, a Democratic consultant who is managing the campaign of an African-American candidate in a judicial race in Manhattan, offered an alternate theory about how Mr. Obama’s victory might be felt in local races.

Call it the Hillary effect.

“I don’t think it will hurt a black candidate,” Mr. Oliva said, “but I do think it will help a woman.”

“There’s a loss there,” he said. “There were two historic things happening, and only one happened. And people are a little frustrated.”

The one thing that seems certain is that candidates will make of Mr. Obama’s historic victory what they want to.

Standing on Fifth Avenue this weekend before the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Bronx Borough President and comptroller candidate Adolfo Carrion, who is of Puerto Rican descent, sought to wrap himself in Mr. Obama’s post-racial mantle.

Asked about the local effect of the Democratic nomination battle, Mr. Carrion, who was a Clinton supporter, said that Mr. Obama’s “ascendancy certainly helps the campaigns of young, relatively young politicians like me who are making a place in the American political life.”

A few hundred yards away from Mr. Carrion was the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Norman Seabrook, who endorsed Mr. Obama earlier this year.

Referring to the citywide candidates running next year, he said, “I don’t think it helps any of them because, as a matter of fact, they all stood up against him. So what’s going to happen is, it’s going to be very interesting to see how it all plays out.”

apaybarah@observer.com

The Trickle-Down Theory of Obama