When U.S. Representative Julia Carson’s staffers announced last week that the Indiana congresswoman was suffering from terminal lung cancer, it finally ended a year of speculation among congressional beat reporters, House staffers and colleagues about her health. The reliably liberal Democrat, one of the first members of Congress to vocally oppose the War in Iraq and renowned for pulling out close races against Republican rivals, her constant absences from floor votes became even more so in September, when she took leave from Congress ostensibly to recover from a leg infection.
But it is in Indianapolis, where Carson’s inner-city congressional district resides, where her legacy looms largest. Over the past five decades, the Louisville native parlayed her ties to the United Auto Workers union and her mentor, former Congressman Andrew Jacobs, into a political machine that helped the Democrats take control of what had long been one of the few urban areas controlled by Republicans. In turn, her proteges have defended her against longstanding charges of corruption and incompetence. Said one ally, Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson: “She’s our queen. We’re going to protect her.”
But for the black communities in Indianapolis she represents, the so-called queen also represents an increasingly archaic feature of America’s urban political landscape: the old-school black politician who emerged during the latter half of the Civil Rights Era. Building and maintaining power through political machines, race-baiting, appeals to black pride and focusing on doling out welfare to poor constituents, this group, which includes such legendary figures as Congressman Charles Rangel of New York and the late Coleman Young of Detroit, elevated themselves into the American political vanguard. Their success, however, did little for their communities.
Beginning with her first election — to Indiana’s lower house — in 1972, Carson perfected this formula. Constituents whose relatives had died could expect a signed condolence letter from Carson’s office. Residents struggling with bureaucratic red tape of the welfare state were slavishly served by her staffers, who steered them in the right direction. Churches and unions tied into Carson’s political machine picked up residents on Election Day to take them to the polls and keep her junta in power.
Carson expertly exploited the race card: During a 2002 re-election campaign, she stormed off the stage during a debate, accusing her Republican opponent, Brose McVey, of “racial polarization” after a series of ads, including those from the National Republican Congressional Committee, accusing her of failing to pay her property taxes on time. But she did more than just race-pimping. Hammered by media critics and her Republican opponent, former auto dealer Eric Dickerson, last year over her poor health and performance, Carson revealed his decade-and-a-half-old arrest to the Indianapolis Star, claiming he “beat his wife into a pulp.”
As she rose to the top of Indiana’s black political establishment, a cadre of allies rode on her coattails. They, in turn, became arrogant and corrupt. Last year, a group of them, including the wife of the city-county council president, Monroe Gray, Bill Mays — who owns the city’s leading black newspaper — and Carson’s longtime majordomo, Center Township Trustee Carl Drummer and city airport board chairman Lacy Johnson, opened a bar inside a government building named for her — located in a neighborhood already infested with alcoholism and liquor stores — and tore out a playground on the grounds for customer parking, despite widespread neighborhood and media opposition. Carson, known for taking fellow Democrats to task for failing to support gay marriage and other “progressive” issues, said little.
Meanwhile the quality of life in Carson’s district — and in Indianapolis, in general — hasn’t exactly improved. In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district — and with significant black leadership in the ranks — 80 percent of black and white males drop out of school, making it the home of the nation’s most pervasive collection of dropout factories; other school districts in the city fare no better. Meanwhile abandoned housing and rising crime — including rates in some categories rivaling those of New York — plague the very impoverished, mostly-black, neighborhoods Carson claimed were her concern. Some 108 homicides were reported in inner-city Indianapolis (the area patrolled by the now-defunct Indianapolis Police Department) in 2005 versus just 59 homicides 20 years ago.
Solving such problems requires a black leadership less concerned with power, groupthink and playing the race card. It also calls for a younger generation of black men and women, born long after the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, who are far more iconoclastic in their political thinking and more concerned with improving the economic and social status of both themselves and their fellow citizens overall. Carson and her allies, however, have eschewed them and, more often than not, demonized those who decry their corruption.
Carson’s impending demise will likely lead to a battle between her old guard allies and younger leaders within the Democrat party to eventually take her place. Sad as her death will be, it is an opportunity to bury a style of political leadership that has done little to serve poor urban communities.