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Report: Black Dems lose clout in southern capitols

ATLANTA -- Black lawmakers have lost clout in Southern state capitols as their overwhelming allegiance to the Democratic Party has left them without power in increasingly GOP-controlled state legislatures.

The nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies says in a report issued Friday that despite Barack Obama's election as president, black voters and elected officials in the South have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era.

"Since conservative whites control all the power in the region, they are enacting legislation both neglectful of the needs of African Americans and other communities of color ..." writes senior research associate David Bositis in a paper titled "Resegregation in Southern Politics?" The Washington-based think tank conducts research and policy analysis, particularly on issues that affect blacks and people of color.

Bositis points out state legislatures are increasingly divided along racial lines -- making Republican synonymous with whites and Democrat and black interchangeable. According to the report, a majority of Democrats in both chambers in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are black. In half of the southern state legislative chambers, blacks are a majority or near-majority of Democratic members.

"This begs the question, 'what is the purpose of having a legislative black caucus when the majority of members in your legislative body are black?"' the report says.

It's a phenomenon unique to the South, as a majority of black state lawmakers serving in legislative bodies outside of the region belong to the party in charge, the report says.

"That's one of the costs of putting all your political capital in a single party," said Emory University professor Merle Black, who is currently researching the rise of the Republican party in the South. "When the Democrats were in power, there was a period there when black lawmakers were very influential."

That era is over, at least for now, Black said.

"Unless the Democrats can work out some kind of deal with the Republicans, the issues that African Americans want to get passed along would have to have enough support among Republicans to pass them," he said.

Kansas state Rep. Barbara Ballard, who chairs the state House Democratic Caucus and is president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, said Southern black lawmakers who find themselves on the margins of power need to get more creative to remain effective.

"When you have smaller numbers, you work harder and you work smarter," said Ballard, who has served in the Kansas House for 19 years. "We still have to represent our constituents. Just because someone else is running the agenda, if we weren't there, they would totally control everything."

Ballard said neither black lawmakers nor their constituents can afford to look at the odds and throw up their hands.

"Look at history," she said. "When African Americans were not able to get what they wanted, they found another avenue to increase the numbers and they started putting the pressure on. We need to look at a wider definition of clout and influence outside of the statehouse."