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Do African American politicians recover from scandal like their white counterparts?

The role of race in American politics cannot be understood except as an example of the role of ethnicity in American politics. Despite the reiteration over the years by elitists that ethnicity should not play any role in politics, that voters and politicians should act without regard to ethnic factors, in fact has shown that ethnicity has always played an important role in politics in the US.

In the course of its history, politics has more often divided Americans both culturally and economically, as well as along lines of region, race, ethnicity, religion, and personal values.

This is natural in a country that has almost always been economically successful and culturally multifarious, and in which economic rising mobility has been the common experience, and where cultural and ethnic identities have often been lasting and resolute.

While politics in so many ways draws on one’s ethnicity and background, so do the scandals that politicians so often find themselves wrapped in.

Political scandals are as old as politics itself. With more than 250 years of American history accounted for, it’s perhaps no surprise that the nation’s political life has had its good and bad moments.

Political scandals have plagued the US from the beginning, and continue to this day. Sex, greed and self-importance often go hand-in-hand with power, money and cronyism, which has resulted in many politicians straying from the straight and narrow. When the indiscretions come out, the voters fume, comedians create sketches and politicians blush. Some of them survive the scandal while others find their political careers ruined with no hope of a comeback. This has been the case for former mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum.

Some scandals, including extramarital affairs, are meant to be personal – these tend to just embarrass the parties involved. While others find themselves involved in wrongful death, drugs or an abuse of power at the highest level. As a result, these types of scandals tend to cripple even the most promising careers.

In the case of Mr Gillum, he was the promising, 38-year-old runner-up in Florida’s gubernatorial race in 2018. Gillum, the state’s first black nominee for governor, lost by fewer than 35,000 votes. Despite his loss, his political capital was rising on the national stage and there were rumours of a vice presidential nomination.

As political careers go, Gillum’s record was almost clean. Until 2018’s Hamilton scandal, which was perhaps the biggest one of his career, was not necessarily damaging.

The Hamilton ticket controversy gained wider attention during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, which to an extent may have contributed to his loss, including racial bias and discrimination that played a factor during the campaign.

Hamilton-gate as it was called, involved Gillum’s alleged acceptance of tickets from lobbyists in 2016 to see Hamilton on Broadway in New York City. Gillum denied the allegations, but received a $5,000 fine from the Florida Commission on Ethics on charges of failing to report lobbyist gifts.
Hamilton-gate, is nothing compared to Gillum’s current scandal that involves drugs and an extra-marital affair with a man.

During the Hamilton saga, Andrew Gillum was still a political star to the public, though there were rumours about his sexuality. His relationship with his former mayoral campaign treasurer and long-time friend Adam Corey, had historically drawn attention and scrutiny in 2014. However, these reports never garnered as much attention.

Nonetheless, since 2018, Gillum’s reputation has not really recovered the way he would have hoped. After his gubernatorial defeat, he started drinking heavily and in March this year, Gillum was one of three men found with crystal meth in a hotel room in Miami Beach. One of them also suffered from a drug overdose.

The person who overdosed is reportedly a gay male escort according to numerous news outlets. However, no arrests were made but Gillum, who was too inebriated to speak with the officers later, announced that he would enter rehabilitation, citing struggles with alcohol after narrowly losing the 2018 Florida gubernatorial race.

Andrew Gillum and his wife R. Jai

It would appear that the focus and scrunity on Mr Gillum has far outweighed that of his white counterparts and appears to still be on-going – although the coronavirus pandemic has overshadowed it.

Sex parties and hard drugs are often the presumed practice for many men struggling to live out another narrative. If Andrew Gillum, a husband and father of three, is allegedly bisexual or gay; it not only casts doubt on his marriage, it also reveals the bias, discrimination and the rigidity of black male sexuality to white male sexuality. Today, there are openly gay white politicians. However, would Gillum have had the same support as an openly gay black man in politics, marriage aside?

On the flipside of that, we have seen a number of white male politicians face their own fair share of scandal and recover. In one case, we look at Edward ‘Ted Kennedy’.

After being elected to the US Senate in 1962, Kennedy was known as a liberal who championed causes ranging from education to healthcare, but he was less successful in his personal life.

In July 1969, Kennedy attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts. He left the party with 29-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, who had campaigned for Ted’s late brother Robert. Soon afterward, Kennedy’s car veered off a bridge and Kopechne drowned.

Despite the Chappaquiddick controversy of the previous year, Kennedy easily won re-election to another term in the Senate in November 1970 with 62 percent of the vote against underfunded Republican candidate Josiah Spaulding, although he received about 500,000 fewer votes than in 1964. While it impacted his voter share, he recovered from the scandal and served as senator until his death in 2009.

Equally, David Vitter, a skilled politician, champion of conservative causes and also, as he acknowledged to the world in 2007, someone who had committed a “very serious sin” involving prostitutes was able to survive his scandal and win a seat in the Senate. His opponent Charles Melancon knew the scandal was not by itself enough to win on, but his campaign included it as part of a broader effort to instil doubt about Mr Vitter, particularly among women.

Vitter won 56% of women’s votes – and this in its broader context reveals the imbalance in politics between black politicians and their white counterparts when it comes to overcoming scandal. Vitter served in office until 2017.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that white politicians have always recovered from scandal. Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who represented New York’s 9th congressional district from January 1999 until June 2011, and won seven terms, faced scandals of his own.

Weiner resigned from Congress in June 2011 after an incident in which a sexually suggestive photo that he sent to a woman via Twitter was captured and publicised. Further sexting scandals were revealed in 2013, and in 2017 Weiner pleaded guilty to another, unrelated sexting charge of transferring obscene material to a minor. He served 21 months in prison and had to register as a sex offender, which in essence has ruined any hopes of a political career in the future.

We have seen Bill Clinton recover from an extra marital affair, as voters believed that his work was more important than his personal life. Donald Trump, who is a relatively new figure in the political sphere, has also been shrouded with scandal time and time again and narrowly survived after being impeached. None of his indiscretions have been questioned or scrutinised and have seamlessly been swept under the carpet.

Sex scandals seem to be at the ‘epicentre’ of most politicians careers. Furthermore, the combination of homosexual’s party lives with meth is becoming increasingly common. For many men and black men, in particular, a successful career as a same-gender-loving (SGL) individual had never been a practical option – there were no role models to talk about.

Gillum’s political future is indefinitely quiescent, but his future as a public figure may be bright. In time, perhaps this scandal could be an opportunity for Gillum to re-emerge as a victor, not only for the expansion and redefinition of black masculinity, but as a minority ethnic whose potential as a politician or public figure goes beyond his personal life.

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