Blacks in Congress Torn Over Candidates

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 16, 2008

African American members of Congress, many under enormous pressure from their constituents, are grappling with the question of whether they should abandon their support of Hillary Rodham Clinton and back Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On Thursday, Rep. John Lewis (Ga.), a civil rights icon who endorsed Clinton last fall, wavered publicly in his backing of her after a series of private conversations with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). He and his aides declined yesterday to say whether he had formally withdrawn his endorsement or plans to support Obama in his role as a Democratic superdelegate, but colleagues said such doubts are echoing throughout the CBC.

"A lot of members who made commitments a year ago based on prevailing thought are having some real trepidations," said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has remained neutral in the race.

Clyburn, a senior member of the House leadership, said he had spoken to numerous CBC colleagues in recent weeks who have questioned their support of Clinton.

"It's emotionally a problem for all of us," he said, adding that he had dreamed of a black president decades ago when he was a civil rights activist. "This is a moment I thought about sitting in a Columbia jail in 1961."

But Obama needs to continue to rack up wins through March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas before a large number of black lawmakers who back Clinton will switch sides, Clyburn said. "After that, if current trends hold, then you'll see movement," he predicted.

All congressional Democrats are among the party's 796 superdelegates, who carry the same weight in the national convention balloting process as delegates elected in caucuses and primaries. But unlike those elected delegates, superdelegates are free to decide which candidate to back.

The role superdelegates will play in choosing the Democratic nominee has come under intense scrutiny after neither Clinton nor Obama emerged from the Super Tuesday round of voting with a clear path to winning the 2,025 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Clinton campaigned in Ohio yesterday, sounding a new populist theme on the economy, and will travel today to Wisconsin, where she is airing her toughest ad yet against Obama, one that criticizes him for not agreeing to a debate in the state, which will vote Tuesday.

Obama campaigned in Wisconsin yesterday and picked up the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, but said he did not know Lewis's plans. "I put in a call to him . . . to find out what he was thinking, but I have not received word from him yet," he said.

Obama won Rep. Corrine Brown's northern Florida district by nearly 2 to 1, despite not campaigning for the state's primary because Democratic Party rules barred active participation in the unsanctioned contest. But Brown traveled to Wisconsin yesterday to campaign for Clinton, whom she endorsed in June.

"I have no stress whatsoever," Brown said. Other CBC colleagues, she said, "want to support the person because he's African American. But as Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin.' " Brown said she is not concerned about the possibility that her constituents might seek to punish her for the decision. "People know I'm going to do what I think is right," she said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company