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Why Are Black Voters More Forgiving of Scandalized Politicians?

Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In a campaign season where a candidates’ literal (and Internet) bedmates are more discussed than his political ones, the New York Times recently noted that scandal-tainted politicians like Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner have retained a disproportionate level of support among black voters.

For several weeks, polling has showed a gap in black and white voters’ attitudes toward both men. Shortly after Mr. Weiner acknowledged his most recent peccadilloes, a Quinnipiac poll of likely voters in the Democratic primary found that 64 percent of white respondents said Mr. Weiner should leave the race, while only 42 percent of black respondents did. More recently, a Quinnipiac poll in the comptroller’s race found that 66 percent of white voters said that Mr. Spitzer’s prostitution scandal was a legitimate issue in the comptroller’s race. Only 43 percent of black voters agreed. And this week, a New York Times/Siena College poll found Mr. Spitzer with strong support among black registered Democrats—57 percent backed him, compared with 37 percent of white voters.

There are lots of elements at play here, including the resonance of the underdog theme, the Christian emphasis on redemption, and, crucially, a deep suspicion toward the media and political establishments that have publicized the candidates’ failings. But the Times piece overlooked the most important explanation: pragmatism. African American support for tainted politicians comes from the same ethic that has allowed Democrats to maintain black support despite poll after poll showing black attitudes on abortion, religion and, until recently, gay marriage line up more closely with the GOP’s positions. There’s a kind of Maslow’s Hierarchy at play in that decision-making. In a perfect world, one might prefer a governor who addresses your interests and doesn’t sleep with prostitutes. In the imperfect, racially and economically stratified world we actually live in, the former takes precedence over the latter—especially in communities where political attention can be a life and death issue. 

Nothing better illustrates this dynamic than Marion Barry’s 1994 mayoral reelection—achieved after the nation saw him smoke crack on videotape and a subsequent prison stint. During the rally that greeted him upon his release, Louis Farrakhan pointed out that the primary victim of Barry’s ills was Barry himself and that he’d never betrayed the trust of the people. (That Farrakhan could be deployed for damage control says something about the extent to which black voters didn’t care how whites perceived their choices in leadership.) Prior to that election, even the widely respected African American political scientist Ron Walters suspected that black middle class voters would reject Barry out of racial embarrassment. But Barry won black voters not only in Ward 8, the largely poor, overwhelmingly black portion of the city beyond the Anacostia River but also among black voters ensconced in middle class neighborhoods in Northwest D.C.

Sharon Pratt Kelly, who ran the city during Barry’s hiatus also inflated the budget deficit to nearly $1 billion. During his campaign to unseat her, Barry pointed out that the city had remained in good fiscal standing during his previous terms, despite his personal vices. His summer employment program had provided a good number of those voters with their first jobs. I voted for Barry that year, to the bewilderment of friends who lived outside the District. The last thing that a city besieged by drugs needed was a mayor who was familiar with the proper usage of a crack pipe. But my vote was motivated by cold practicality: In choosing between two flawed candidates, I opted for the one who had better managerial credentials.

My decision—and those of many other black Washingtonians who voted for Barry—was less racial than political. And we weren’t the first voters to overlook a terribly flawed candidate who nevertheless represented our best interests: James Michael Curley, who defined machine politics in Boston for decades, actually won reelection as mayor while serving a felony conviction for mail fraud. He had the support of the city’s Democratic machinery, but also the allegiance of working people. A generation later, the upwardly mobile sons and daughters of that electorate could reasonably recoil from the kind of graft and ethnic embarrassment Curley represented.

Neither Spitzer nor Weiner have overtly campaigned around African American issues (though it’s probably worth noting that half of the six photos scrolling on the Spitzer’s campaign website feature him shaking hands with older black women). In a real sense, though, neither of them had to run a black-specific campaign to benefit from that kind of pragmatic forgiveness. It’s probably not coincidental that both candidates have a public reputation as scrappy fighters willing to take on powerful interests on behalf of the voiceless. Spitzer’s track record, far more than Weiner’s substantiates that hope. While this year’s crop of mayoral candidates have struggled to calibrate their positions on the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy, Spitzer launched an investigation of the practice more than a decade ago. As Attorney General he recruited a coterie of African American attorneys who came to regard him as an ally of progressive causes even if he didn’t expressly speak of them in racial terms.

Spitzer retains higher levels of support among black voters for the same reason that Bill Clinton retained the support of women voters and notable figures like Gloria Steinem during L’affair Lewinsky: return on investment. The Congressional Black Caucus was similarly quick to rally around Clinton, knowing both that he would be deeply indebted to them and that the elements that dismissed Clinton as an Oxford arriviste with Arkansas mud on his shoes were also hostile to their interests. For their part, black voters suspected that Clinton was embattled precisely because he’d been too closely associated with their interests. (This is also part of the reason for Obama’s Teflon ratings among black voters.)

Anthony Weiner’s thin legislative track record doesn’t give much reason to think he’d be an effective ally of African Americans in the mayor’s office but there’s also a virtue in bargaining for political allegiance at fire sale prices. The principle of buy low, sell high doesn’t apply solely to the stock market.

The empathy gap is, on some level, a product of those other more familiar racial gaps in education, wealth and employment and it will persist for as long as those barometers of inequality do, which is to say that scandal-plagued politicians will be making campaign stops in black churches for a long time to come.