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 He and his aides declined yesterday to say whether he had formally withdrawn his endorsement or plans to support Obama in his role as a Democratic superdelegate, but colleagues said such doubts are echoing throughout the CBC.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.
The tensions that have begun to surface are part of a generational shift within the ranks of black political leaders. For older figures such as Lewis, the prospect of an African American president was for many years unimaginable, because most black politicians of his generation hit the ceiling of their political ambitions in majority-black cities or congressional districts. But younger black politicians "look in the mirror, and they see Barack Obama's face. They see their futures," said David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "I, quite frankly, am surprised this hasn't happened sooner."
One turning point, many CBC members said, was Obama's overwhelming victory in Virginia on Tuesday, in which he beat Clinton 50 percent to 49 percent among white voters overall and won white males by an even larger margin -- 55 percent to 43 percent -- according to exit polls. "That was the last thing that black leaders thought -- that Obama would be the stronger candidate among white men in a Southern state, the group that had been the most resistant to their agenda," Bositis said.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama backer and one of the younger CBC members, predicted that his colleagues will eventually abandon Clinton because they will not want to "be on the wrong side of history," but also because of their own political interests.
"Members have to decide whether they are going to stand in the way," Davis said, warning that even longtime lawmakers could see their decisions translate into a primary challenge at home.
"Different members have to make that calculation on political terms," he said. "Some of those members have to stand in front of those constituents and explain" their support for Clinton. "Those are powerful pressures."
The discussion has come as senior Democratic leaders this week signaled in increasingly direct language that they will seek to unify superdelegates behind the candidate with the most popular support.
"I don't think it was ever intended that the superdelegates would overturn the verdict, the decision of the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday.
Even staunch Clinton allies acknowledged that circumstances have changed.
"If you had an exciting candidate you didn't think was viable, and suddenly he becomes viable, that's something you would have to consider," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the Ways and Means Committee chairman. But the race could still turn back in Clinton's favor, he said. "We don't know what's going to happen."