The Complicated Legacy of Carol Moseley Braun
Thus far in the Run Like A Girl series, we’ve met pathbreaking women who — with the notable exception of Lenora Fulani — have long since passed on. Today, we turn to recent history, to a former presidential candidate who is very much alive, if no longer politically active: Carol Moseley Braun.
Carol Moseley Braun made her run for the Presidency during the 2004 election cycle, ending her campaign in 2003 — before the Iowa caucus and just after a disappointing third-place finish in Washington DC. The first African-American woman elected to the United States Senate, and the former ambassador to New Zealand, Moseley Braun has a complicated political legacy, one that, on account of her still being with us, might still very well change. At sixty-eight years of age, Carol Moseley Braun does not seem inclined to return to elective office, but then, hers has been a political life full of unexpected twists.
Braun’s name is inextricably tied to the now cliché “Year of the Woman,” so named because that election year saw female candidates enjoy unprecedented success at the ballot box. The same year Braun became the first black woman in the US Senate, the American electorate voted three other women into the Senate. By way of comparison, today we have twenty women serving in the Senate, none of whom are African American. (The political glass ceiling against which African American women struggle seems to have remarkable regenerative properties…)
Carol Moseley Braun’s political assent was one of the biggest political upsets in Illinois history. Braun’s opponent, Senator Alan Dixon, had won not one, not two, but twenty-nine elections in his political career. Dixon was so widely regarded as bulletproof that Illinois Republicans didn’t bother to challenge his seat. It turned out, however, that Dixon was far from invincible; attack ads from a third party candidate and a significant backlash against his vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas paved the way for Braun — then the Cook County recorder of deeds — to become the first African American woman to serve in the United States Senate.1
Perhaps the highlight of Carol Moseley Braun’s tenure in the US Senate was her successful filibuster of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ amendment to renew a design patent for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which — unsurprisingly — included the confederate flag. Unlike most filibusters, Braun’s speech actually changed minds: after an initial 52-48 vote in favor of the amendment, the Senate killed the amendment with a 72-25 vote.2
Inspiring though Braun’s meteoric rise was, the media darling became embroiled in scandal almost immediately upon taking office. There was the matter of her $800,000 campaign debt. There was the Federal Election Commission investigation of her campaign’s fundraising and spending practices. There was the fact that her former campaign manager — implicated in the aforementioned questionable fundraising and spending practices — was also her former fiancé, Kgosie Matthews. Then there were the unsanctioned trips she and Matthews, a South African, took to Nigeria, trips that some argued lent tacit credibility to then-dictator Sani Abacha. Braun fought back against — and largely disproved — claims of political and financial malfeasance on her part, but as is so frequently the case for women in politics, the stain of accusation proved far more enduring than facts.
Scandals aside, Carol Moseley Braun also supposedly had a reputation in the Senate for shying away from hard work. One suspects such allegations wouldn’t have been nearly as detrimental to Braun’s re-election prospects had she not been the first woman of color in the Senate. Whether or not Braun worked hard enough is disputable; less so was her strong aversion to fundraising, which led to her being outspent 3 to 1 in her failed re-election bid.3 Braun lost her Senate seat after just one term, and hasn’t held elected office since. Braun did, however, receive perhaps the greatest consolation prize of all time: Bill Clinton appointed her to serve as the US “Ambassador to Paradise,” also known as New Zealand.4
In 2003, after years out of the spotlight — and three years of George W. Bush — Carol Moseley Braun decided to run for president. In an election that (for Democrats anyway) was a study in squandered opportunities, Braun was a consistently positive presence. While she of course argued to the contrary, it seems Braun’s positivity was born, in part, of the recognition that she didn’t have a chance in hell of winning the presidency. She was, in essence, in the race to rep for the ladies. As The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch reported, “[her] candidacy assures that there’s a woman in the Democratic field and in front of the camera during candidate debates.” Braun made the most of her shot at political redemption, charming debate viewers like myself with her poise, charisma, and sense of humor. Unfortunately, her status as a crowd pleaser didn’t translate into votes.
Braun dropped out of the primary race early, throwing her support to Howard Dean. After that, she disappeared, Keyser Sӧze style. Poof. No more Carol Moseley Braun on the national scene. After her failed presidential bid, Moseley Braun ran a law firm and, in a turn that should make even the most serious liberal chuckle, launched a line of organic foods called Ambassador Organics.
The would-be President of the United States of America made a mini comeback in 2011, running for mayor of Chicago. Heralded by the Associated Press as the race’s “black consensus” candidate, Braun had the unenviable task of trying to prove that — despite having been off the political radar for nearly a decade, and having not held elective office since 1992 — she was more qualified than candidates like then-Democratic Party political darling, Rahm Emmanuel.5
The most memorable moment of Braun’s 2011 campaign was an embarrassing snafu during a candidates’ forum. Derided by opponent Patricia Van-Pelt Watkins for attempting a return to politics after years spent “missing in action,” Braun asserted that Van-Pelt Watkins didn’t know what she’d been up to “because you were strung out on crack.” Van-Pelt Watkins — in addition to being far behind Braun in the polls — was 25 years sober, having used marijuana and cocaine as a teenager.6 Braun apologized for punching down, but the damage was already done. She only captured 8.97% of the vote.
The following year, 2012, Carol Moseley Braun found herself in the news again, for reasons both unfortunate and beyond her control. Her Hyde Park home was in foreclosure. She ultimately sold the property, but still ended up $200,000 underwater.7 With the exception of the occasional speaking gig, Braun has kept a low public profile ever since. If the events of the previous fifteen years are any indication, perhaps no news is good news.
Over twenty years ago, Carol Moseley Braun found herself sitting in the Illinois state legislature, in a chair once held by none other than Stephen Douglas. According to Braun, she shifted her weight multiple times, occupying every nook and cranny of the pro-slavery state senator’s seat: “Because wherever he was in the afterlife, I wanted him to know I was there.”8
In a political moment where dog whistles have been traded for megaphones, and Hillary Clinton’s character has been attacked from every angle, it’s nice to know that, however removed from the spotlight she may be, Carol Moseley Braun is still here.
- Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Sunday Edition, September 21, 2003, 5. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- The Index-Journal, Sunday Edition, January 2, 2011, 4. Return to text.
- Northwest Herald, February 1, 2011, 3. Return to text.
- Bob Goldsborough, “ Former Sen. Moseley Braun Sells Hyde Park Home for $1.205 Million,” Chicago Tribune, October 16, 2012.Return to text.
- The Burlington Free Press, March 31, 2015, A4. Return to text.
Andrea Milne is a SAGES Teaching Fellow and Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University. Her current research focuses on the nurses who developed the first AIDS ward in the United States. She received her PhD from the University of California, Irvine in 2017.