Double Duty: A Small Group of African Americans are Serving Simultaneously as Scholars and Elected Officials
By Ron Taylor
When Dr. Mamie Locke conducted an independent study seminar at Hampton University last year, her 10 political science students got more than an Ivory Tower approach to the art, craft and science of winning and holding elected office. Because their instructor, Locke, a political scientist by training, is also the mayor of Hampton, Va. Locke, who was elected mayor in May, has been the dean of the school of liberal arts and education at Hampton since 1996. Locke is part of a small group that crosses the line between the practical and the theoretical. She is part of an estimated 200 Black elected officials in the United States who also are professors or administrators at an institution of higher education, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Barely noticed among the estimated 8,000 African American elected officials and a half-century after the dawn of the civil rights movement, these double-duty officers reflect both the rise of Black scholars and the evolution of Black political power in the United States, say political observers.
Unsurprisingly, there are Black officials who also wear the cloak of political science teacher, says David Bositis, who has studied Black elected officials at the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center.
As scholars of the art of politics they “are well situated for running for political office.” After all, Bositis, says, “if plumbers’ sons are most likely to become plumbers, it should come as no surprise that those who study politics wind up holding office.”
The evolution of the small group of political scientists who put their knowledge to work by holding office is one of the little noticed by-products of an era that saw African Americans emerge from the wars of the civil rights era as community leaders, says Dr. Diane Pinderhughes, former president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
The men and women who studied political science during that turbulent era were not just interested in the theory of power, she says. “The core of the people who taught in the 1950s and 1960s were interested in crossing the line between theory and practice.” The result was a cadre of activists who were well versed in both lofty principles and winning elections, she explains.
Keeping the Day Job
Some scholars seek public office as a post-academic career. And a successful few are wearing both hats simultaneously.
The group includes such people as Charles Richardson, vice mayor of Winter Haven, Fla., who directs the office of development at Polk Community College also in Winter Haven; Fred Terry, a training officer at Winston Salem State University’s human resources office who also is one of the five aldermen for the city of Winston Salem, N.C.; Dr. Robert Holmes, a Clark-Atlanta University political science professor who also is a member of the Georgia House of Representatives; and Dr. Leslie McLemore, a Jackson State University political science professor who also is a member of the Mississippi legislature.
While the contrast — and potential conflict of interest — between the political theorist and practitioner would seem to stand out in bold relief for local office holders, those Black elected officials who also are scholars say they relish the unique position they are in.
“It makes a lot of sense to be an elected official and a member of higher education,” Terry says. “Sometimes, my colleagues at WSSU don’t see the value of being included in politics. Since I work for a state institution, though, I realize that politics are woven throughout the process of deciding who gets state money and who doesn’t. As an elected official, I’m able to give the chancellor [at WSSU] a heads-up on issues that are critical to the school as they come up before the [aldermanic] council.”
Terry became a member of the council in 1997, winning a four-year term with 60 percent of the vote following a campaign that was launched to oust “somebody that nobody liked.” The community sentiment called for a change, and community leaders encouraged him to run.
A similar political epiphany led Charles Richardson to seek a spot on Winter Haven, Fla.’s (pop. 26,000) city commission six years ago. After a 20-year absence from his home state of Florida, he went to Polk Community College to work with the office of student development. There, he helped guide a corps of 600 of the school’s 6,000 students through the thicket of social and educational issues that often stand in the way of advancement from the secondary level to the college level.
Richardson realized, he says, that there was a need for political leadership at the local level and decided to run for the City Commission. His opponent in that first campaign told voters that Richardson was too busy to hold office. That challenge triggered his competitive juices and made him determined to run. He won, was reelected and was named to the post of mayor in
October. The commissioners are selected at-large and choose one of their number to serve as mayor. Richardson says he has not encountered any conflicts of interest between his duties at Polk Community College and the commission. Indeed, he says, the post puts him in a position to help, not through arbitrary abuse of power, but as a person who can articulate the needs of the African American community.
Mayor Locke needed no prodding to run for office, she says, noting that she “has been politically active since high school. I’m a political scientist by training but I’ve always been interested in local politics.”
The Jackson, Miss., native came to Hampton to teach but had her eye on elected office throughout adulthood. In the Tidewater area town of approximately 140,000 residents, she has gotten her chance. In 1994, she got the opportunity when local residents who wanted to put a Black person on the Hampton city council approached her. She was quick to tell them, “Raise enough money and get the people on board and I’ll run.”
She successfully ran against a retired police chief and won a two-year term for a ward spot. In 1996, she ran again, this time at-large, and won. In 1998, she won again, was selected by the council to be vice mayor and parlayed her political capital to be elected mayor in 2000.
She admits that as mayor, she has to walk a narrow line to avoid conflicts between her position as mayor and dean. When a potentially troublesome issue comes before the council, she asks for an opinion by the county commonwealth attorney. So far there have been few occasions when she has to refrain from voting on an matter. The most notable issue she remembers is when the city council was voting on whether to contribute to Hampton for construction of a building on campus. She did not vote but advocated a $2 million contribution to the school. The council rejected her lobbying and voted for $1.5 million. As a major player both on campus and in city hall, the $500,000 difference is a small price to pay for power, she says.
After all, she says, how many other scholars get to apply the teachings of their philosophical heroes — and get to wield a gavel at the same time?
Related Story Colleges Encourage Faculty to go High Tech
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com