London Breed is the exception — why few blacks rise to power in Bay Area – San Francisco Chronicle

As the celebration of London Breed’s inauguration as San Francisco’s first black female mayor fades, a more ominous statistic looms: There’s a chance the Bay Area will have no African American representatives in the Legislature after the November election.

The only African American on the ballot for a seat in the Legislature — Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles — squeaked into the general election by 26 votes. She received half as many votes as primary winner and fellow Democrat Buffy Wicks in Assembly District 15, and she has a fraction of the cash on hand that Wicks has.

The winner will replace Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Democrat who is now the only African American representing the Bay Area in Sacramento. He’s running for state superintendent of public instruction and, if victorious, would be the first African American to hold that office since Wilson Riles served three terms in the 1970s and ’80s.

The prognosis isn’t much different in Washington, where Rep. Barbara Lee is the only black member of Congress “between here and Los Angeles,” as the Oakland Democrat put it.

Lee is understating the case. She is the only black member of Congress between Los Angeles and the Canadian border.

The Bay Area is scarcely alone in underrepresentation of African American officeholders: Twenty-one states have never elected a black member of Congress, and there are only 48 African Americans in the House and Senate now. But for a diverse region that has produced such African American politicians as Willie Brown, Ron Dellums and Kamala Harris, it’s noteworthy that Breed and Thurmond are among a small handful of prospective candidates for higher office who are black.

Lee, who is 72 and has represented the East Bay in the Legislature and Congress since 1990, struggles to explain why few black candidates are emerging to run for state and national office in the Bay Area.

“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Lee said the other day. “It’s a hard one to answer.”

The answer is wrapped up in money and demographic shifts and access to power. And as long as the median price of a Bay Area home is $875,000 and climbing, that trend will be hard to change.

“It costs a heck of a lot of money to run for office,” Lee said. “We have a lot of candidates who are qualified to run for office. But California — it’s a really hard state to run in. You’ve got to be raising money all the time.”

In 2014, it cost an average of $837,000 to win an Assembly seat in California, according to the nonpartisan campaign finance-tracking organization Maplight. Count on having to raise $1.1 million if you want to win a seat in the state Senate.

Lee said black candidates typically start running for office when they’re older — “after they’ve taken care of family.” And when they do run, they seldom have a network of wealthy family and friends to help them with seed money for a campaign.

Nationally, the average white family had $171,000 in assets in 2016, while the average black family had $17,000, according to the Urban Institute. And whites “are five times more likely than blacks to receive large gifts or inheritances,” according to the institute.

“That’s not a reality for many candidates, and certainly not me,” Thurmond said. Born in California, he had no family money — his father left when he was young and his mother died of cancer when he was 6. He and three siblings were raised by a cousin in Philadelphia before he returned to the Bay Area as an adult.

Eric Harris, a legislative advocate for the California NAACP, noted that many African Americans have left the Bay Area because of the high cost of living, particularly housing.

Blacks’ proportion of San Francisco’s population has dropped from more than 13 percent in 1970 to 6 percent today. Lee said that when she first ran for Congress in 1998, her district was 34 percent African American. Now it’s 18 percent.

“And it’s having an impact on who gets elected and who runs for these seats,” Harris said. “You have really talented people, they went to great schools — but then they get out and have high student loans and high debt to take care of.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, man, I’d love to (run for office), but I got to pay off these loans,’” Harris said.

“You have to have a base of support,” Lee said. “Now, it’s not the overriding factor — look at London (Breed). But you have to be able to form coalitions.”

That’s how Thurmond reached the Assembly. It was a long road to get there without family money or political connections.

He lost his first race for Richmond City Council in 2004 before being appointed and then winning election on his own. He won a school board seat, then lost his first race for the Assembly in 2008 before succeeding six years later.

He admits that when he first ran, he didn’t know anything about the machinery of campaigning — and he wasn’t “part of a political family” that could teach him. Lee, for example, worked for Dellums, a 13-term congressman, before she ran for the Assembly.

Thurmond learned to raise money early in a campaign and lock in absentee voters. And he knocked on doors across the district to boost his profile among voters when he didn’t have much money to spend.

Darren Parker, chair of the California Democratic Party’s African American caucus, pins a lot of hope on Thurmond starting his own political family tree. Electing him to a statewide office could inspire other black candidates, Parker said.

“It’s very difficult to bring the message to the grassroots level unless it is being delivered by someone who looks like you,” Parker said. “There seems to be a disconnect when you have a white American come down and tell a black American how he can be successful. If we’re truly going to have a pathway to success, electing black leaders is going to be a critical part of that success.”

Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: Twitter: @joegarofoli