Carol Moseley Braun, a lawyer from Chicago, became the first black female United States senator when she was elected to office in 1992. She served but a single term in that august chamber, from 1993 until 1999, but she left an indelible mark on Congress owing to her status as a lawmaker of color as well as her commitment to progressive causes. Later, she served as the United States ambassador to New Zealand and ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States as well as mayor of Chicago. I discuss her life and times in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.
Moseley Braun began her political career serving in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1979 until 1988. Her time in the state house revealed her interest in championing politically liberal causes, especially on behalf of blacks, ethnic minorities, and the poor. She also served as assistant majority leader, the first time an African-American woman had been named to a leadership post by a majority caucus in any state legislature.
She decided to run for the United States Senate after the incumbent senator, Democrat Alan J. Dixon, voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. Dixon lost the Democratic primary to Moseley Braun in 1992, shocking the political establishment and making her the first woman to defeat an incumbent senator.
In the fall general election, she faced Republican Richard S. Williamson, a prominent if somewhat bland lawyer, political operative, and diplomat. Although Williamson by all accounts was a well-qualified, competent candidate, he could not compete effectively against a Democratic celebrity who enjoyed mostly favorable, occasionally fawning press coverage. At one point, Moseley Braun held a seemingly insurmountable 30-point lead.
Her campaign almost came to a screeching halt on September 28, 1992—just 36 days before the election—when a story emerged that in 1989, Moseley Braun had failed to report a $28,750 royalty payment to her mother, as required by law. Moseley Braun’s mother, Edna, lived in a nursing home, and Medicaid paid her bills. When Moseley Braun, who was responsible for her mother’s bills, received the royalty payment for timber-cutting rights on family land in Alabama, she was obligated to use part of the proceeds to reimburse Medicaid for her mother’s nursing care. Instead, she kept the proceeds. As soon as the story circulated, the candidate cut a check for $15,239.92. She explained that the failure to pay was merely an error, not evidence of financial corruption. Her core supporters accepted the explanation, but undecided voters and her detractors remained skeptical.
The Medicaid story hurt her standing in the polls, but it did not alter the final result. Moseley Braun won the Senate election on November 3, 1992, with 53.27 percent of the vote (2,631,229 votes) to 43.06 percent for Williamson (2,126,833 votes). “We won a great victory tonight,” the senator-elect assured her elated supporters. “You have made history.”
Moseley Braun arrived in Washington, DC, in January 1993 to pursue a decidedly liberal social agenda, although she supported relatively centrist economic policies. She voted in favor of the 1993 budget bill, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. If populist Democrats were unhappy with these positions, they viewed her stance on progressive social issues far more favorably.
Arguably the most high-profile issue in her Senate career came in her first year when Moseley Braun took on the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a heritage association dedicated to honoring the memory of soldiers (and their families) who fought for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The UDC had patented a logo with an emblem featuring the Confederate battle flag, a controversial symbol that represented a racist message for some audiences. The patent, which originated almost 100 years earlier, expired every 14 years. As it had done on four previous occasions in the twentieth century, the UDC applied for a patent renewal. Most patents were handled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Only 10 groups, including the American Legion, applied for patent renewals from Congress. In most cases, the congressional renewals were pro forma affairs, seldom generating much controversy. Such renewals were a routine courtesy granted to a few favored patriotic organizations, mostly to honor their work on behalf of the American public.
By 1993, however, a movement was underway in a number of southern states to remove the Confederate battle emblem from state flags and from official correspondence. The UDC patent renewal application was filed at a time when the issue was highly visible in the news. As the only African American woman serving in the Senate as well as a member of the Judiciary Committee, which was tasked with considering the UDC proposal, Moseley Braun challenged the renewal after South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, himself a well-known segregationist and former States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat) presidential candidate, sponsored the measure.
At the conclusion of the debate, the Judiciary Committee voted 13-2 against renewing the patent. It appeared to be a major victory for the freshman senator, an especially sweet triumph in a chamber where seniority usually dictates the success or failure of a member’s initiatives. Yet the matter was not gone, or forgotten. A little more than two months later, on July 22, 1993, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, a staunch conservative, attached the UDC renewal as an amendment to President Clinton’s national service bill. To justify his action, Senator Helms remarked that the Judiciary Committee’s May 1993 decision was an “unintended rebuke aimed at 24,000 ladies who belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy who work together as unpaid volunteers at veteran’s hospitals and many, many other places.”
Pulled out of a Judiciary Committee hearing by her alarmed staff, Senator Moseley Braun learned that the full Senate would soon vote on the bill containing Senator Helms’ amendment. Helms had taken a test vote and believed he had secured 52 votes in favor of the amendment. When she marched onto the Senate floor, Moseley Braun knew that she needed to change some minds or her efforts would be in vain.
Echoing her comments from the May debate, she expressed righteous indignation that the U.S. Senate, supposedly the world’s most deliberative body, would rush to approve a Confederate symbol without debating the ramifications of such action. “On this issue there can be no consensus,” she cried. “It is an outrage. It is an insult. It is absolutely unacceptable to me and to millions of Americans, black or white, that we would put the imprimatur of the United States Senate on a symbol of this kind of idea.”
Most senators vote with their party, their region, or their state on issues they deem important to their constituents, and therefore their political futures. Impassioned speeches delivered from the well of the Senate sometimes play well in the popular press, but they seldom change minds or votes. Moseley Braun’s speech that day was the exception that proved the rule. She was so eloquent that she turned the tide. Much to his surprise, Helms, the long-standing senator, saw his amendment go down in defeat.
Aside from her stance on the Confederate battle emblem, the senator pursued a variety of politically liberal causes. As an adamantly pro-choice advocate, Moseley Braun voted to legalize partial-birth abortion. She also consistently supported gun control measures. In 1996, she voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined “marriage” as the union of a man and woman. The U.S. Supreme Court later held that the statute was unconstitutional.
Despite her status as an assertive woman of color in the U.S. Senate and her legislative achievements, Moseley Braun’s time in office sometimes is remembered for her missteps. She ran into controversy when the Federal Election Commission (FEC) investigated $249,000 in missing campaign funds. Coming on top of the revelation that she had failed to account for funds related to her mother’s nursing home bills, the FEC news reinforced the image of a less-than-honest politician who chose to place her own financial well-being over the public interest. It was a portrayal that dogged the senator, fairly or unfairly, throughout her career. Moseley Braun cited sloppy accounting practices rather than criminal intent to explain away the campaign finance errors, but the damage to her public image was done.
She ignited additional controversy in 1996 when she traveled as a private citizen to the African country of Nigeria, one of several visits to that nation while she served in the Senate. During the trip, she met with Sani Abacha, the de facto head of the country, a military leader widely denounced as a corrupt authoritarian. The United States government had instituted sanctions against the Abacha regime. To make matters worse, Moseley Braun’s former fiancé, South African native Kgosie Matthews, had been a lobbyist for the Nigerian government. In the meantime, Moseley Braun had paid Matthews $15,000 a month as a campaign strategist during her 1992 Senate campaign. Because she had not registered with the U.S. State Department before departing on the 1996 trip, Senator Moseley Braun’s visit appeared to be a means of circumventing American policy toward Nigeria. The senator claimed that she was not involved in corruption, but the Nigerian visits, coupled with her boyfriend’s links to that country, tarnished an image that already had been tarnished many times.
As the 1998 election season approached, Moseley Braun understood that her missteps would present difficulties when she sought a second term. She was right to be worried. On November 3, 1998, her Republican challenger, Peter Fitzgerald, a banker and state senator, won 50.35 percent of the vote to Moseley Braun’s 47.44 percent. One newspaper account dubbed her loss a “dramatic fall,” concluding that many of her supporters from 1992 abandoned her in 1998 “out of disappointment over her alleged misuse of campaign funds, controversial visits to a Nigerian dictator and other miscues.”
After her Senate career ended early in 1999, the former lawmaker was not quite ready to depart from public life, despite a pledge to never stand for election again. On October 8, 1999, President Clinton nominated her to be the United States ambassador to New Zealand. Normally, a former senator would enjoy confirmation courtesy, but Moseley Braun’s nemesis, Senator Jesse Helms, threatened to block her nomination. As the press revisited the 1993 imbroglio over the UDC patent renewal, a possibly apocryphal story circulated that once upon a time, the two senators found themselves in an elevator together. The incident supposedly occurred in 1993, not long after Moseley Braun had delivered her impassioned Senate speech against the Confederate battle emblem. In a deliberately provocative gesture, Senator Helms burst into a rousing chorus of the pro-Confederate song, “Dixie.” Helms reputedly told a supporter that “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries.”
Despite Helms’ longevity in the Senate, he did not have enough political support to kill Moseley Braun’s nomination. On November 9, 1999, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Moseley Braun’s appointment by a 17-1 vote, with Helms as the lone dissenter. The following day, the full Senate confirmed the appointment by a 96-2 vote, with Helms and Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald, the man who defeated Moseley Braun in the Senate race the preceding year, supplying the two “nay” votes.
Moseley Braun served as ambassador until the end of the Clinton administration in January 2001. After she left public life, she occasionally reemerged in the political arena, but her time had come and gone. In February 2003, she contemplated a presidential run, announcing that she would seek the Democratic nomination the following year. On January 15, 2004, after a disappointing third-place finish in the Washington, D.C., primary, she dropped out of the race and endorsed former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
In November 2010, Moseley Braun announced that she would run for the open mayoral seat in Chicago after Richard M. Daley announced his retirement. Although the former senator enjoyed widespread name recognition, she could not overcome her well-known political liabilities. When the results of the February 22, 2011, election were tallied, she garnered 8.9 percent of the vote, placing her fourth in a field of six. Former Obama White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel easily won the office, earning more than 55 percent of the vote.
In the years after she left public office, Moseley Braun primarily worked in her own law firm. She also offered a line of organic food products. Black elected officials who followed her, most notably Barack Obama, Corey Booker, and Kamala Harris, eclipsed her fame, but they also paid homage to her legacy as a pioneer for people of color, especially women, in the United States Senate.