Congressional Black Caucus weekend: Younger generation keeps the party growing

September 18, 2013

Is the Congressional Black Caucus weekend now Congressional Black Caucus week? It sure got off to an early start this year, as 100 attractive young people gathered for a Sunday brunch kickoff on the rooftop of the Beacon Hotel. Cocktails by Svedka, swag bags bulging with cupcakes and hair product. Guests of honor included a NASA official, a Maryland delegate, a couple high-ranking Hill staffers, and. . .

Well, some CBC members, right? Didn’t any members of Congress show up?


The scene at a CBC party last year at Sax nightclub. (Nicole Venable)

“We didn’t invite any,” organizer Joi-Marie McKenzie told our colleague Krissah Thompson brightly. “Our target was young professionals.”

What started more than 40 years ago as a policy-wonk conference for African-American lawmakers long ago blossomed into a can’t-miss fly-in networking event for the business and cultural elite, increasingly embellished by an array of ever more tangential parties. There are mixers with ambassadors and with minority contractors. Sorority reunions, movie screenings and “Lean In” panels. A late-night club party headlined by a Washington Wizard. And four straight days worth of windup-to-the-weekend happy hours.

“Socially, it is kind of how the White House Correspondents’ dinner has evolved over the years,” said Sanders Adu, a former Hill staffer now with Wells Fargo and veteran of 20 years of CBC festivities (who met his wife at a CBC weekend). “It has become more of a social event for the country and not just for people interested in politics.”

Officially, CBC weekend remains centered around the legislative policy sessions at the Washington Convention Center culminating in Saturday’s gala Phoenix Awards Dinner, where President Obama will speak; there are still private parties for elected officials new (Rep. Terri Sewell) and old (Elijah Cummings). But you may find even more gatecrashers clamoring to get into Essence magazine’s glitzy annual invite-only bash, where honorees include Maj. Gen. Nadja Y. West and TV host Sherri Shepherd, and Bell Biv Devoe will perform. Essence President Michelle Ebanks called it “a very proud celebration of influencers in our community” that “turns into a great party that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.”

Credit or blame a younger generation for the party sprawl. When Angela Rye, the caucus’s former executive director, hosted an event for young professionals in 2006, it was the only such thing on the calendar. Now, “there are tons. Three or four a day. That speaks volumes,” she told Thompson. “In our community it’s really hard for our elders sometimes to create space and make room for what is coming up. There is a shift in culture.”

And even the young attendees maintain that it’s not about the party. “The reason that we go is for the substantive legislative conference,” said Don Calloway, director of national affairs for Anheuser-Busch. The nightlife is just “a good opportunity to find members and senior staffers in a less formal setting.”

So, busy week ahead? “I won’t make all the party stops by night like I used to. I just can’t do that anymore.”

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