Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents

Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents

by Richard F. Fenno

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Thirty years ago there were nine African Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today there are four times that number. In Going Home, the dean of congressional studies, Richard F. Fenno, explores what representation has meant—and means today—to black voters and to the politicians they have elected to office.

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Thirty years ago there were nine African Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today there are four times that number. In Going Home, the dean of congressional studies, Richard F. Fenno, explores what representation has meant—and means today—to black voters and to the politicians they have elected to office.

Fenno follows the careers of four black representatives—Louis Stokes, Barbara Jordan, Chaka Fattah, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones—from their home districts to the halls of the Capitol. He finds that while these politicians had different visions of how they should represent their districts (in part based on their individual preferences, and in part based on the history of black politics in America), they shared crucial organizational and symbolic connections to their constituents. These connections, which draw on a sense of "linked fates," are ones that only black representatives can provide to black constituents.

His detailed portraits and incisive analyses will be important for anyone interested in the workings of Congress or in black politics.

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Editorial Reviews

Paula D. McClain
“In this original and important book, Richard Fenno draws upon interviews with the pioneer group of black congresspersons (Louis Stokes and Barbara Jordan) to compare their representational styles to contemporary congresspersons such as Chaka Fattah and Stephanie Tubbs Jones. His portraits suggest that black representatives are not simply descriptive representatives of their group, but work very hard to provide substantive outcomes as well. Fenno has the ability to pull more information from an interview and put it within a broader theoretical context than any political scientist I know.”Paula D. McClain, Duke University

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Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents

By Richard F. Fenno

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Richard F. Fenno
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226241319

Thirty years ago, there were nine African American members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, there are four times that number. And therein lies a story of political accomplishment in America. Among students of the Congress, interest in that story has burgeoned as the numbers have increased. There exists, now, a varied and growing political science literature devoted to studying the ambitions, beliefs, interests, organizations, strategies, behavior, and influence of the black members of the House.
In that literature, two prominent themes are change for African Americans as a group and diversity among its elected members of Congress. The thirty years of change is treated as a recent chapter in a prolonged and continuing struggle by an excluded racial minority to win inclusion and influence in the nation's preeminent representative institution. In the current post-civil rights era, the ongoing group struggle has sometimes been written in terms of the diverse aspirations, activities, and accomplishments of individual black Representatives. The first object of this book is to make a small contribution to these twostories--the macro-level story of change, and the micro-level story of diversity. The second object of the book is to suggest some conceptualizations that might be helpful to the larger study of congressional representation.
The "small contribution" mentioned above is designed to fit into a specific body of literature on African American representation in Congress. That literature has clustered around three broad subjects: inclusion, influence, and linkage.
Questions about inclusion revolve around getting, keeping, and evaluating representation for the nation's largest racial minority. In the congressional context, these questions center on entry and the barriers to entry. How do black politicians get into Congress? Who gets in? Under what circumstances? What explains the thirty-year increase in the number of black Representatives? Answers to these questions focus on the electoral aspects of racial rep-resentation--on legal barriers, on redistricting decisions, on citizen voting patterns, on the racial makeup of constituencies, on candidate emergence and on electoral strategies.
Early research centered on the social and legal changes that opened up participation to minorities--the civil rights revolution of the fifties and sixties and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in particular. Recent research has given special prominence to redistricting decisions--as they affect both the adequacy and the fairness of minority representation. Because it embraces these broad questions of legality and fairness, the large literature on inclusion has been normative as well as empirical.
Questions about influence have centered on the impact of the African American minority on the political life of the country. For the study of African Americans in Congress, the central question has been: How and under what conditions do black members of Congress exert influence inside, or through, the institution and with respect to what? The question assumes their election to Congress and calls attention to their legislative and oversight activities, to their committee assignments and committee work, to their roll call voting patterns, to their leaders, and to their alliances--inside and outside--the chamber.
Because of its longevity and its prominence, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has attracted the bulk of this research on minority influence in Congress. Studies of the CBC's makeup, its representativeness, its internal cohesion, its legislative strategies, its bargaining leverage, its external relationships, and its overall accomplishments have dominated assessments of black member influence in the House--and assessments of their changing influence as well.
Linkage questions have focused on the relationships of responsiveness and accountability between black elected officials and their separate constituencies. In a single member district system, that relationship is the essence of representation. The elected official makes an effort to respond to, and to influence, the sentiment of constituents within the district, and the constituents register a measure of approval. Within limits, House members can choose the constituents to whom they will respond, and the manner in which they will respond.
Member-constituency linkages may be forged out of policy preferences, personal contact, constituency service, symbolic activity, or group identities. Recent scholarly research has focused on policy linkages and the match between the policy preferences of constituents and the policy votes of their House members. These studies pay special attention to the relationship among the race of the member, the racial makeup of each district, and member voting patterns.
Political science research within these three subject areas--inclusion, influence, and linkage--has given us three windows on African American members of Congress. Of course, the three windows are related to one another. In the real political world, we do not have a separate politics of inclusion, a politics of influence, and a politics of linkage. Research that deliberately cuts across all three rubrics reminds us how interrelated they are. Two successful studies of these interconnections are Carol Swain's Black Faces, Black Interests and David Canon's Race, Redistricting, and Representation. The view adopted for this book utilizes all three vantage points. Deliberately, however, it gives primacy to the "linkage and representation" window.
The linkage research to be reported here differs from most previous linkage research in two related respects. First, it does not center on questions of policy congruence. Second, it has been conducted almost entirely in the constituency. To date, the great bulk of political science research on congressional representation has focused on policy linkages, and it has been conducted at the Washington end of the linkage, where policy votes occur. The present study is built on the assumption that there is more to representation than policy relationships and that there is, therefore, value to be added from research conducted outside of Washington, at the constituency end of the linkage.
Indeed, a notion underlying the research is that representation is, at bottom, a home relationship, one that begins in the constituency and ends there. The research plan, therefore, is to watch, listen, and talk to some members of Congress as they go about their work in their districts and, thereby, to uncover the broadest repertoire of perceptions, attitudes, and activities that link that "at bottom" to their constituents. Home, not Washington, is the place where most House member-constituent contact occurs and the place where judgment is ultimately rendered.
In the literature on black politics, the linkage and representation window has often been treated in terms of two basic linkages--descriptive and substantive. Voters gain and politicians provide "descriptive representation" when the two share some distinctive and defining characteristics. In the case of black voters and their elected black officials, the common characteristic is race. The idea is that black voters will feel represented when the person they elect is black. By contrast, voters gain and politicians provide "substantive representation" when the two share fundamental policy interests and policy preferences. The idea is that voters will feel represented when the elected official acts in ways that promote their shared policies. The distinction is sometimes stated in the language of someone "standing for" or "acting for" someone else.
Among students of black politics, a great deal of empirical and normative discussion centers on the two types of representation, their importance and their compatibility, in linking black citizens to their elected representatives. In discussions about the drawing of congressional district lines and about the overall representation of minority interests, questions involving descriptive and substantive representation are dominant. Their prominence requires that these two linkages be kept in mind. But in this book they will not dominate. They will be present, but in a different framework and in a different form.
In a study of four separate Representative-constituency relationships, conducted amid the hurly-burly of ground-level activities, the distinction between descriptive representation and substantive representation is not very helpful. It is both too general and too restrictive to use in organizing and analyzing observed behavior. Descriptive representation, to the degree that it is interpreted as "standing for," is too static a notion to be useful in thinking about the continuous member-to-constituent interaction that takes place in a real constituency. Even when descriptive representation does encompass some symbolic activity, its common statistical rendering constitutes an impediment to ground-level description.
As for substantive representation, it is equally restrictive in helping to identify the fullest range of a Representative's activities at home. As the term is commonly used, substantive representation encompasses one activity-- policy representation as reflected in voting in Congress. That usage is perfectly adequate if policy voting is the main matter of scholarly interest--as typically it has been. But the day-to-day activity of a Representative in his or her home district involves a good deal more than that. If the full range of observable activity is to be treated, the policy-centered interpretation of substantive representation impairs its usefulness.
These difficulties emerge, of course, when research involves uncommon venues and questions. It was only when I went to observe the representational relationships of House members in their home constituencies that I found descriptive representation and substantive representation to be inadequate to the descriptive task. And, as a by-product, I also found that the oft-debated problem of their compatibility simply did not arise. To make sense out of what I was seeing, I had to transmute the two categories into a different conceptual language. From time to time, therefore, while the conventional categories will be mentioned, they have, for the most part, been set aside.
In the home district, member-constituency relationships reveal themselves through constant activity. Representation, therefore, can best be observed and conceptualized as a process. And the idea that best conveys process is the idea of connections. Representation is about connecting, and I assume that all constituency connections matter in the process--and the study--of representation.
The links between constituency policy preferences and the roll call records of House members have been the most heavily researched connections. But vote choices are only one out of many sorts of connection choices House members make. When the idea of descriptive and substantive representation is transmuted into the idea of connections, a wider variety of choices becomes visible. The static idea of descriptive representation becomes useful when interpreted as symbolic connecting activities. The idea of substantive representation is useful when limited to policy connections, and examined via roll call voting in the House and via policy dialogue at home. Then it becomes possible to examine separately several other active, observable connecting activities. In addition to symbolic connections and policy connections, three other connections--personal, electoral, and organiza-tional--will be central in analyzing the representational relationships of House members at home.
Representation, as a relationship between an elected official and a constituency, is provisional and always subject to change. It is a relationship, therefore, that must be constantly worked on and worked out to the provisional satisfaction of both parties. Viewed at the district level and over the shoulder of the elected official, representation is a never-ending process whereby the politician works at building and maintaining supportive connections with some proportion of his or her constituents. We can, therefore, think of the representational relationship as a negotiated relationship, and we can think of the process of negotiation as central to the process of representation. In this book, I will use the idea of negotiation in a nontechnical, commonsense way. It is the basic idea of adjusting and matching, over time, the performance of one side to the expectations of the other.
As a negotiating process, representation is both incremental and experimental. Its incremental characteristics are reflected in the sheer number and variety of contacts between Representative and represented that occur-- continuously--in the district. The experimental aspect of the process is reflected in the trial-and-error efforts of Representatives to bring their performance over time into some sort of equilibrium with the expectations and the monitoring routines of their constituents. Constituents want responsiveness, access, and two-way communication. House members want sup-port--votes in the short run, trust and durable connections in the long run.
The research vantage point for this book is the home constituency. In the constituency context, each House member chooses certain connection patterns that he or she believes will result in constructive political activity and constituent approval. A member's pattern of connection choices can be thought of and analyzed as a strategy of representation. The basic elements of every House member's strategy are personal goals, constituency contexts, and experiential learning. They will be the guiding conceptualizations of the narrative. A brief elaboration of each follows.
All House members are goal seekers. They have ambitions; they want to accomplish things. They make choices and actively pursue such goals as getting reelected, making good public policy, accumulating influence in the House, building a political party locally, performing a civic duty, and helping individuals with their problems. Each member's representational strategy is driven by his or her goals.
Most members pursue a mix of goals. Election is, of course, the all-absorbing goal of every would-be House member. And reelection subsequently becomes the first-order goal of almost every incumbent House member. But election is not the only goal that drives the aspirant toward politics in the first place, and reelection is not the only goal that keeps the member in politics afterward. Nor, observably, is the electoral goal the crucial trace element in doping out each member's strategy of representation. Thus, while it is always necessary to recognize that the first-order goal for most members is election or reelection, this single goal is rarely sufficient to explain their representational behavior.
Most members want to stay in Congress in order to pursue some broader, more satisfying goal--often the same one that attracted them to politics in the first place. In the observable mix of goals, it is this second-order goal that turns out to be the distinguishing feature of each member's district-level representational relationships. In discussing their district-level representational strategies, therefore, I shall treat the reelection goal as both common and instrumental. And the more sustaining goal will be treated as distinctive and dominant. I assume that a House member's dominant goal is the key to understanding the preponderance of that legislator's connections.
All House members are also context interpreters. They make choices and take action not in the abstract, but according to what they believe to be rational or appropriate in the circumstances or context in which they find themselves. And it is they who will interpret that context and act accordingly. The two main contexts in which their interpretation is called for are the constituency at home and the House of Representatives in Washington. Some important aspects of home context are fixed--proportions of blacks and whites, for example. Others are interpretable--constituent preferences and expectations, for example.
With respect to the constituency context, it will be helpful if I assume that each Representative perceives not a single home constituency, but a set of constituencies that nest, like a series of concentric circles, within one another. The largest circle, the district, contains all the residents of the legally prescribed geographical constituency; the next smaller, the reelection constituency, contains all voters who support or might support the member, and the smallest, the primary constituency, consists of their most active and most reliable supporters. African American members, as this book shows, perceive a fourth constituency to which they respond, one beyond the dis-trict--a national constituency of black citizens who live beyond the borders of any one member's district, but with whom all black members share a set of race-related concerns.
Finally, all House members are experiential learners. Over the course of their political careers, they negotiate their constituency relationships and develop recognizable connection patterns. Their negotiations do not take place all at once. They are sequential. They take time. My basic research strategy-- of observing and tracing member activity over time--is predicated on that very condition. In thinking about member activity over time, the most useful perspective is a developmental one. The idea of careers is one such developmental idea. And the idea of learning is another. Members learn by their experience, and their experience guides them. Negotiating experiences are learning experiences. And their experiential learning can be traced in their negotiating sequences.
The negotiating experiences of House members are matters of mutual adjustment between them and their constituents. From the member's perspective, these adjustments proceed largely by trial and error. They must learn from their trial-and-error experiences how to size up situations and how to act in the service of their goals. When they have to make choices, they often begin with the question: "When I was faced with this situation or this kind of situation before, what did I do and what was the outcome?" If the outcome was satisfactory, there is a strong predisposition to do this time what they did last time. To do otherwise is likely to draw special attention from other players, and, since special attention can often be unfavorable, they tend not to risk it. They may, of course, update their situation--with new information, for example--and decide not to follow past practice. But there is a strong tendency to follow it.
Students who trace member vote choices in Congress have found a similar tendency to learn by experience and to follow it. That is, members make a large number of their vote choices by consulting their past votes and--if the outcome was satisfactory and the content roughly similar--they vote the same way they did before. Thus, as Herbert Asher and Herbert Weisberg describe it, members develop, over time, consistent and recognizable "vote histories."
In his careful tracing of member career patterns inside the House, John Hibbing finds experiential learning to be reflected in member choices about voting and legislating. Vote choices tend to be fairly stable over time, constrained by past experience and past lessons. But choices about legislative involvement, on the other hand, reflect member openness to new experience and, as such, show a distinctive and positive learning curve. These studies provide both rationale and support for some extra attention to the constituency-based negotiating sequences of individual House members.
My first research adventure in the home districts of U.S. House members took place in the early 1970s, when I observed and wrote about the district-level activity of eighteen House members. Among them were Louis Stokes of Cleveland, who served in Congress from 1969 to 2000, and Barbara Jordan of Houston, who served from 1973 to 1978. In that study, details of person and context and experience--which might have provided a more nuanced picture of each individual member's political life--were squeezed out of the story in order to compare broad behavioral patterns. I used case studies for illustrative purposes, but kept the individuals unrecognizable. Stokes and Jordan grouped together anonymously with all the others, and race was not a relevant analytic category.
Because of the burgeoning interest in black politics, however, and because I had this small, two-person baseline from which to work, my curiosity led me to take a second, more focused and more contemporary look at a couple of other African American House members. They are Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, whose current service began in 1995, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Cleveland, whose current service began in 1999. Because the present study examines only four individuals, it maximizes detail and, of necessity, removes anonymity. It necessarily sacrifices explanatory precision in order to gain descriptive richness. Readers will, of course, judge the merits of that trade. It is, however, important to note at the outset that--except for election results--this book presents no systematic evidence of constituency sentiment. It has been written almost entirely from the perspective of each individual Representative.
From beginning to end, the present research was curiosity and case-study driven. It had no overall "design." With Stokes and Tubbs Jones, I seized the opportunity to observe representational change from one Representative to another within the same district. With Jordan and Fattah, there were no continuities. The four individuals are treated here in the order in which I first met them--in an effort to match my own learning curve. I do want to make clear at the outset that I began and ended without any preconceived notion about a "best" strategy of representation or a "best" Representative. Each individual became, in my view, a successful U.S. Representative.
In no sense do these four people constitute a "sample" of African American House members. There are, however, important commonalities. I met all of them near the start of their congressional careers. All four lived their entire lives in the district they represent, and all four have represented dominantly urban constituencies. This latter characteristic is especially important because it eliminates from consideration the growing number of African American members from less urban and more heterogeneous con-stituencies--the very group of post-1990 Representatives that sparked and leveraged the important studies by Swain and Canon. This book does find and does describe both representational change and representational diversity, but it does so within a narrow range of the available possibilities.
Within districts, as well as across districts, sampling was impossible. With research of this type, the researcher does not make up the House member's home schedule or dictate the timing of a visit to the constituency. Much of what the researcher observes or converses about with the Representative and can report at firsthand is controlled by others. And the researcher cannot be certain what has been left out. Narrative accounts must be constructed from a series of intermittently gathered snapshots. The reliability of generalizations can be improved by repeated visits to the district, and author experience counts for something in drawing conclusions. But in the end, all generalizations, both across and within districts, are unusually tentative. Which condition, it is hoped, will serve to encourage--not discourage--more research of this nature.
My window on the constituency life of black members of Congress has been intermittent and tiny. More important, perhaps, my window has been opaque. I am a white researcher immersed, briefly, in the affairs of black communities. I am, of course, a stranger in any community beyond my own. But the strangeness of race is an extra hurdle in achieving rapport and in trying to figure out what is going on. I feel somewhat confident of my intellectual grasp of the rational aspects of the behavior I observe. But it is difficult for me to appreciate or evaluate the historical and emotional aspects of the larger inclusionary struggle. The difficulty increases when, as in these cases, anonymity is foregone and relevant personal and circumstantial detail is sought.
Very early, I recognized that African American scholars are best equipped to do the job. But I also recognized that there is not yet a surplus of African American scholars doing it. And I believe I do have a story worth telling. My intent and my hope, therefore, are that these four narratives will be of some help to the larger, mainstream research community studying black politics in America. I hope, too, that it might provide an incentive for members of that community to proceed further. As another by-product, perhaps, the conceptualization, the argumentation, and the narrative content of this book can be of some help to students already researching the large subject of political representation.


Excerpted from Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents by Richard F. Fenno Copyright © 2003 by Richard F. Fenno. Excerpted by permission.
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