During the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina, John McCain was the target of a whisper campaign that he’d fathered a black child out of wedlock. McCain, who in reality had an adopted Bangladeshi daughter, suffered a pivotal loss to eventual nominee George W. Bush.
Fifteen years later, with control of the Virginia State Senate in the balance, the Republican and Democratic candidates — both white — are showcasing their black children in televised campaign ads.
In one ad, Republican Glen Sturtevant, a member of the Richmond School Board, plays hide-and-seek with his two adopted sons; in another, two adopted daughters of Chesterfield Supervisor Dan Gecker give their dad a ringing endorsement.
The 10th Senate District, which includes Powhatan County and portions of Chesterfield County and Richmond, is majority-white and no liberal bastion. To the extent the candidates could be accused of pandering to black voters, one could counter that they risked alienating the larger white electorate.
At least that’s the conventional way of looking at politics in Virginia. But even if you’ve been watching elections for decades, it’s hard not to watch these ads and think, “Well, that’s different.”
Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, after a defeat at the polls, once vowed in racially explicit terms to never again allow an opponent to outflank him on bigotry. The Wallace of that era would have been confused by Gecker and Sturtevant, who seem to be waging a competition of an altogether different nature. The injection of interracial parental love into their slugfest of a campaign makes for a remarkable contrast.
No politician places his children before the camera with the idea that it will cost him votes. But we must never become so cynical, so suspicious of motivation, that we lose the capacity to acknowledge positive change when we see it.
“It’s hard to call this anything but good news,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “I remember the 1950s and 1960s, when Virginians would openly decry racially mixed marriage or the adoption of children of another race. And the Senate race is in the Richmond area, once one of the most resistant to change.
“Today,” Sabato said, “a mixed-race family is a political plus. Without saying a word, you project an image of progress and modernity.”
Of course, it’s hard to imagine a mixed-race family as part of a political master plan, given the love, commitment, energy and money required to raise a child. And what happens if you lose the election?
But evidence abounds that Sabato is on to something.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and his African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, are the parents of college-age daughter Chiara and son Dante, who wears a prodigious Afro hairstyle. And south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Kentucky, Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin and his wife have run ads including their four adopted Ethiopian children.
“Doesn’t it really ultimately comport with people’s ideas of post-racialism?,” said Julian Maxwell Hayter, assistant professor at of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
Indeed, we live in an increasingly multiracial and multicultural nation with attitudes that reflect this shift. Interracial marriage is at an all-time high. A similar shift in attitudes is at play on interracial adoption, which has increased dramatically since the enactment of the federal Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996.
Those acts, which apply to agencies or entities that receive federal funds, sought to combat discrimination on the basis of the race, color or national origin of the prospective parent or child. By the time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a 2007 survey, 40 percent of adopted children were of a different race, culture or ethnicity than their adoptive parent or parents.
Yes, we’re talking about Virginia, where interracial marriage was against the law until the Loving v. Virginia decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. But in another reflection of progress, Virginia had the highest percentage of black-white marriages in the nation, according to a 2012 analysis by the Pew Research Center.
“We’re leading the charge there. And it’s not just Northern Virginia. So in some ways, the type of interracialism we’re seeing in politics is a reflection of demographic trends,” Hayter said.
But the reality is that the election of President Barack Obama hardly made us a post-racial society, and indeed, has produced backlash and backsliding. And as Hayter points out, individual bigotry (or the lack thereof) should not be confused or conflated with the enduring problem of institutional racism. “We don’t like to talk about that, because it’s complicated.”
“The idea of adopting kids really does feed into this idea of moral altruism, to people’s obligations to vulnerable communities. And I think that’s noble,” he said. But such nobility does not absolve politicians of accountability, he said.
Some people take issue with candidates deploying their children in political campaigns, but I found the kids to be a welcome departure in a state Senate contest that had all the charm of a street fight.
Once upon a time in Virginia, legislators at the state Capitol brandished their segregationist bona fides and worked overtime to keep the races apart. Today, two white politicians saw their black kids as an asset who could help them win a seat in that same statehouse. In what has been a season of negatives, that’s something to embrace.