The Accidental Senator

Carol Moseley Braun was as surprised as anyone when she defeated Sen. Alan Dixon in the 1992 Democratic primary. Moseley Braun, who occupied the obscure ministerial office of Cook County Recorder of Deeds, jumped into the race because she was angry at Dixon for voting to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Moseley Braun was running as a protest candidate. Unfortunately for her, she wound up as a U.S. Senator, a job she wasn’t prepared to hold. Her political career has never recovered.

After 10 years as a state legislator, Moseley Braun might have been ready to serve as an obscure junior senator. But, fairly or not, she was thrust into a bigger role than that. I remember sitting in the Senate gallery, in the fall of 1992, and hearing a woman ask her boyfriend, “Are there any black senators?”

“No,” he said, “but there’s this woman in Illinois…”

Not only did Moseley Braun have to make the jump from county government to D.C., she was the only African-American in a Senate that still contained members who had filibustered against civil rights.

“I was the only person of color in the Senate, and my colleagues were Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Trent Lott,” Moseley Braun later said when recalling her Senate term as “the worst six years of my life.”

After Moseley Braun successfully persuaded the Senate to revoke the charter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that Southern gentleman Jesse Helms sang “Dixie” as they rode an elevator together. This was after he bragged, “I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.”

It hadn’t been that way in multi-racial Hyde Park, which is probably the easiest place in America for a black politician to represent white voters. Moseley Braun was married to a white attorney, Michael Braun, for 13 years. As a state representative, she “wasn’t afraid of white people,” said a white politician who worked with her in those days.

“She could be comfortable speaking to them and not having it in her head all the time that ‘They’re looking at me as a black.’ She operated on the level that, ‘Well, I’m the same as you are, and I have the same training and abilities that you have.’ The one thing about communities like Hyde Park is everybody takes that as, ‘Well, OK, that’s the way it is.’ The fact that you happen to be black doesn’t undercut that.”

Moseley Braun lost to Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, and she’s never gotten over the bitterness and grievance she developed during her Senate years. Her hostile, defensive behavior during this mayoral campaign demonstrates that.

Moseley Braun isn’t the only politician who’s been ruined by a promotion. The same thing happened to Dan Quayle. Had she stayed in Chicago, she might have risen to Cook County Board president and retired as a respected elder. Instead, she’s going to remembered as the first former senator to call a political opponent a “crack addict.” It’s beneath the dignity of an office that turned out to be beyond her competence.

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