Obama power broker new face of black politics
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Comedian George Lopez told his agent Christy Haubegger a couple of weeks ago that he wanted to campaign publicly for Sen. Barack Obama. Haubegger, an executive with the Hollywood talent firm Creative Artists Agency, knew the person to call: her old friend from the Stanford Law Review, Tony West.
West is one of the California finance co-chairs of Obama's campaign, helping him raise a record $65 million in the state, and he also advises the candidate's national finance committee. And he is more than Obama's confidant. West is part of a new generation of African American politicians who grew up outside the black churches or the civil rights community and now are finding their voice - and political power - in the tone of Obama's campaign.
West's bulging Rolodex, like Obama's, is full of contacts made while studying at an Ivy League university (Harvard) and editing his law school review (at Stanford). That network, in West's case, was augmented by working on six presidential campaigns (including both of Bill Clinton's) and at an A-list San Francisco corporate law firm (Morrison & Foerster).
Like Obama, the 42-year-old West knows from experience how race can affect a campaign - even when the candidate tries to transcend it. Eight years ago, the former federal and state prosecutor was running for a San Jose-area state Assembly seat. It was a nasty campaign, with partisans on both sides hitting hard. Days before the primary, voters received a mailer alluding to false claims that West was living in Oakland. His face was darkened and placed inside an Oakland Raiders logo, to make him appear "as if a gangsta were running," as the San Jose Metro newspaper put it. West lost to Manny Diaz, a Democrat, who eventually was elected to the Assembly.
"I think he came out of that race a little less idealistic," said his sister-in-law, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who has endorsed Obama. West married Harris' sister Maya, his best friend from law school, and they have an adult daughter, Meena. "He is so smart, and he always sees the positive in everything, but that was below the belt."
"I certainly hope that he would run for office again," said former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who called West "one of my mentees." Brown, who has not endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate, said West "could be, like Obama, one of these candidates that transcends race. He is exceptionally gifted."
West said he lost none of his idealism and dismissed the mailer as the "stuff that happens in politics. I think it says more about the process than it does about the voters.
"I think it is sometimes easier for people to appeal to things that are negative," he said. "It is easier sometimes for campaigns to appeal to things that frighten us. The fact that campaigns may do that, and do it successfully, doesn't make it right and doesn't make it lasting."
More than race
Trying to look beyond racial politics is "generational," said Charles Henry, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley and an expert on black leadership. "This is a generation that grew up outside the black churches or the civil rights community. They're less likely to see a racial slight than an older generation.
"They're more likely to have met through elite universities or law schools," Henry said. "They've taken advantage of the gains of the civil rights movement," even if they were in diapers during its heyday.
Henry and other analysts said examples of this generation of black politicians include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Newark, N.J., Mayor (and Stanford alumnus) Cory Booker; and Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Long Beach, who has a master's in business administration and was recently elected from a largely Latino district. Richardson, unlike the other two, supports Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"Tony's ascension in the various worlds of politics is largely due to the fact that he has always been very meticulous about maintaining his networks - and they are networks that are beyond California," said Sam Rodriguez, an unaffiliated political consultant who worked with West when Rodriguez led the California Democratic Party.
Kerman Maddox, a onetime aide to former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who runs his own Southern California consultancy and is African American, said West has shown him the fundraising breadth of the black middle class. Much of the $3 million raised at a fundraiser at Oprah Winfrey's Santa Barbara estate last year came from middle-class African Americans, Maddox said.
"I was surprised at how much money came from African Americans in Southern California," said Maddox, who teaches political science at the University of Southern California and who is an Obama fundraiser. "It used to be that campaigns would come to the (African American) community and ask us to get out the vote. But they have the money. There just haven't been people like Barack Obama and Tony West to tap into it before."
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