Nation & World

Obama ushers in a new generation of black leaders

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DENVER — When Ty Harrell looks at Barack Obama, he sees a little of himself.

Both are Democratic office holders who stress bipartisanship. Both came from racially mixed backgrounds. Both won elections thanks to white constituents — Obama as a U.S. senator from Illinois and Harrell as a state legislator representing a House district in in western Wake County.

That may be why Harrell, a year and a half ago, was the first elected official in North Carolina to endorse Obama.

Harrell is part of a new generation who think of themselves less as black politicians than as politicians who happen to be black. They did not rise through traditional black politics, do not stress what are often regarded as black issues and win elections mainly by appealing to whites.

Nationally, they include the likes of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

"I just happen to an African-American," Harrell said. "I'm not doing it because I'm an African-American."

Harrell, 38, was elected in 2006 to represent Republican-leaning state House District 41. The district takes in parts of west Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville and was less than 10 percent black when Harrell defeated veteran Republican Rep. Russell Capps.

His victory caught the attention of Obama, who called Harrell even before he was sworn into the office. So began began a courtship which ended with Harrell’s endorsement.

"How did you do it?" Obama wanted to know in the first conversation. "What made you successful?"

The endorsement was not easy, Harrell said. Obama's support was in the single digits nationally at the time and much of the state's leadership was endorsing former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Some older political leaders were wary of endorsing Obama. They'd seen other black candidates stumble, including former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt's unsuccessful races in 1990 and 1996 against Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Harrell’s life experiences gave him a different take. Not only had he been elected by white voters, but he grew up in a racially mixed Raleigh family, with a mother who was half Scottish.

When Harrell thinks of his grandparents growing up in south Georgia in the era of Jim Crow — hearing racial epithets and being spat upon — Harrell said he feels powerful emotions about Obama's ascendancy.

"I've welled up over this," he said. But Harrell said there is a difference between traditional black political leaders and a younger generation not as tied to older, established organizations.

"We can't continue to have the same tired plays being run from the same tired play book," he said.