Milestones: Tuesday and Wednesday, November 7-8, 2023
TWO FIRSTS IN A DAY — Two African American politicians, both Democrats, were elected on Nov. 7, 1989, to key leadership posts within their states. David Dinkins, a former Manhattan Borough President, was elected as the first Black mayor of New York City. Virginia’s Lt. Governor Douglas Wilder became the first Black state governor in U.S. history, and the first Black individual to win a statewide election in Virginia. Known as a pragmatist, Mayor Dinkins was a compromise selection for voters exhausted by racial strife, corruption, crime and fiscal turmoil, and he did have some major accomplishments, according to his 2020 New York Times obituary. However, his mishandling of the 1991 Crown Heights riots between Jews and Blacks was roundly criticized. Both Dinkins and Wilder served only one term, but for different reasons: voters rejected Dinkins in 1993 in favor of a former federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani. And Virginia law prohibits a governor from serving two consecutive terms.
Dinkins was New York’s only Black mayor until Jan. 1, 2022, when Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, term-limited from that position, won the 2021 mayoral election.
A NATION’S UNPRECEDENTED FAITH — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Nov. 7, 1944, was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in office, to this day the only U.S. president to have served more than two terms. He was both revered and criticized by detractors for programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the New Deal that brought the nation out of the Great Depression and reorganized the banking system. He led Americans through World War II and the growing threat of fascism, a major factor in his landmark reelection in 1940 to a third term. FDR battled personal adversity as well, having contracted polio in his prime, in 1921, at age 39. Undeterred by his paralysis, he won the 1928 New York gubernatorial election and served as governor until his election to the Presidency in 1932, as had his distantly related cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, 33 years earlier. FDR died of a stroke three months after the start of his fourth term, and his vice president at the time, Harry S. Truman, succeeded him.
During the Truman Administration, Congress proposed a change to the U.S. Constitution that officially set the term limit for the President as two terms of four years each. That change became the 22nd Amendment in 1951.
A CONTROVERSIAL FIRST VOTE — THE FIRST WOMAN IN THE HISTORY OF THE NATION TO WIN A SEAT IN CONGRESS, Montana suffragist Jeannette Rankin, a progressive Republican was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 7, 1916. Rankin also hailed from a western pioneer state, whose neighbors Wyoming and Colorado had already approved suffrage. Rankin’s first vote as a U.S. Congressperson was probably one that sunk her in the next election cycle; a Republican and a dedicated pacifist, she voted against the United States’ entry into World War I, and she lost her seat in the 1918 election. She was both praised for her courage and criticized as being an example of woman incapable of dealing with national leadership pressures — even though 49 of her male Congressional colleagues had also voted against joining World War I.
However, not one to give up, Rankin ran for the Senate as an independent (though losing) and, in 1940, Rankin again won a seat in Congress, according to Senate.gov. Still a pacificist, she served alongside Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and other women who had also since been elected.
YOUNGEST PRESIDENT EVER ELECTED — MORE ELECTION FIRSTS TOOK PLACE ON NOV. 8, 1960, WHEN AMERICAN VOTERS ELECTED THE YOUNGEST, AND FIRST ROMAN CATHOLIC PRESIDENT EVER, 43-year-old John F. Kennedy. Handsome, debonair JFK and his beautiful and gracious wife, Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, charmed the world and his administration was nicknamed “Camelot,” (originally referring to the legendary King Arthur’s Court and Round Table.) During the Nixon-Kennedy debates, which were the first to be televised, Kennedy came across as more vibrant and robust than did then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who was recuperating from a recent surgery. Nixon focused on the Eisenhower Administration’s achievements; whereas Kennedy projected forward with the space program and emphasized the need for a flexible foreign policy to meet a changing world.
Kennedy’s selection of Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Southern white Protestant, was considered a shrewd choice because of his experience negotiating across the aisle as Senate Majority Leader. But it was also JFK and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy (managing his campaign) who secured the release of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. from police custody that won him the Black vote.
APPROVED BUT NEVER ENACTED — This election winner was not a person but a political issue: Proposition 187, which California voters on Nov. 8, 1994, approved by 59%. This anti-immigrant ballot measure, the campaign brain-child of a group of Republicans and state legislators who were marketing it as saving money for taxpayers, banned undocumented immigrants from using the state’s major public services, including the public school system and non-emergency health care. It also required health care professionals and educators to monitor the number of immigrants in their care, as well as report on immigration status. Pushing Proposition 187 was Republican Governor Pete Wilson, but it got pushback before Election Day, with protests and student walkouts. Even though the Proposition saw a temporary victory at the polls, the measure was never enacted.
However, Proposition 187 (which finally got repealed officially) did change California’s political landscape: almost 90% of that state’s new voters were either Latinx or Asian, and they registered as Democrats. In the three decades since Proposition 187, new laws to protect the undocumented have taken effect.
CALIFORNIA ‘GOT YOU, BABE’ On the same day that Proposition 187 (see above) was passed, SAME YEAR, SAME STATE — SALVATORE (‘SONNY”) BONO, of the erstwhile entertainment couple “Sonny and Cher,” won election on Nov. 8, 1994 to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Congressperson for the 44th District, serving part of the Los Angeles area. A shrewd and successful restaurateur, Bono grew interested in politics after facing bureaucracy over construction issues for one of his new eateries and registered to vote just a year before winning election in 1988 as the mayor of Palm Springs. A conservative Republican, Bono persevered even after a primary loss for a U.S. Senate seat four years later. Finally, he was part of the 1994 GOP sweep into Congress that catapulted Newt Gingrich into the Speakership.
Bono’s wife at the time, Mary Whitaker Bono, took over Sonny’s House seat after he died tragically in a skiing accident after serving in Congress for only three years.
See previous milestones, here.
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