Three caucus members — Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Reps. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) — are on the shortlist of potential running mates for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
And with black candidates around the nation channeling the public clamor for equality into likely primary upsets last Tuesday, the group is poised to expand its ranks next year — when it marks its 50th anniversary.
“I’ve seen the CBC since its inception, and this is quite a moment where everything has come together,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). “It’s sort of something that I know the founders of the CBC dreamed of, worked for . . . envisioned. . . . People are beginning to recognize this.”
Lee reminisced about one of the original 13 members of the caucus, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first black woman elected to Congress. Lee worked on Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign, called her a friend and her mentor, and recalled that Chisholm had to “fight just to get a seat at the table.”
Members of the caucus are already making plans to capitalize on the moment, eyeing two possible vacancies in chairmanships to increase their clout. Although mail ballots are still being counted, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) trails rival Jamaal Bowman, an African American former middle school principal.
Caucus members are uniting behind one of their own to replace Engel and lead the committee: Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.). The panel has never had a black chairman.
Members are also discussing the possibility of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) taking the gavel as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. The current chairman, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), is locked in a close race that is also contingent on tens of thousands of mail ballots.
Looking beyond Congress to the November election, caucus members are upbeat about the potential for legacy-defining change — 12 years after one of their own, then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), was elected president.
“It’s a moment of leadership for our members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who is not only hoping for an African American vice presidential nominee but black Cabinet members and Supreme Court nominees in a future Biden administration. “It’s time for us to lead on a national level. . . . It shouldn’t be just one, it has to be many.”
To be sure, the CBC has always been a force to be reckoned with in Congress since its founding in 1971. The organization’s purpose is to use constitutional power and the federal government “to ensure that African Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”
Now, as the largest minority caucus in the House, it boasts a record membership that is approaching 60 next year.
Its members hold four of the 21 permanent committee gavels. And the group’s highest-ranking member, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), can arguably claim the title of kingmaker after his endorsement in the South Carolina primary propelled former vice president Joe Biden to a statewide victory and onward to the presumptive Democratic presidential nomination.
But the nationwide conversation about race is giving the group even more power and stirring talk about the next leaders. Jackson Lee expressed hope that the policing bill could be one of several pieces of legislation addressing the needs of black Americans. And House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has often been mentioned as a possible first black speaker.
Members took pride Thursday night in securing passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, even though the effort to overhaul law enforcement tactics has stalled in Congress with the Republican-led Senate favoring a narrower measure.
The Democratic bill would ban chokeholds and some no-knock warrants and establish a national database to track police misconduct. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death and nationwide protests, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) deferred to the caucus to craft the legislation, leaning on Bass, its chairwoman, to guide the process.
On Thursday, Jeffries gave an impassioned closing argument for the policing bill, speaking directly to protesters around the nation: “We hear you, we see you, we are you.” He also recounted a story about how his son challenged him after news of Floyd’s death, asking him: “What are you going to do about it?”
“I say to him, and I say to all those other black children throughout America: We are here today as House Democrats to do something about it,” Jeffries said.
When three Republicans — Will Hurd (R-Tex.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — suddenly defected from their leadership instructions to vote “no” and backed the bill, Bass cheered, but bullishly vowed to get more of them to sign on soon.
“I am ecstatic that we have a bipartisan historic passage of a bill to transform policing in the United States,” she said. “And now I look forward to getting my other Republican colleagues on board. Many, many of them came over and approached me. And so, I'm going to celebrate tonight, and I'll be back at work tomorrow.”
On the campaign trail, black politicians have tapped into the energy from the growing demands for racial justice. In primaries this past week, voters spoke when they picked black candidates over their white counterparts, sending a signal of change to Washington.
Beyond Bowman’s probable win in New York, Cameron Webb — an African American physician, former White House fellow and health policy researcher — captured the Democratic nomination in Virginia.
In the New York City suburbs, Mondaire Jones, an attorney and former official in the Obama Justice Department, held a primary lead in a crowded field vying to replace retiring Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.). If he wins, Jones would be the first openly gay black member of Congress.
And in Kentucky’s Democratic Senate primary, Charles Booker, once a long-shot candidate, is running close with Amy McGrath, the retired Marine fighter pilot backed by national Democrats. Either one would face a tough challenge in trying to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
In Congress, the mood has also made CBC members reassess their demands over gavels. Traditionally, the group has been among the most adamant in insisting that House Democrats follow seniority rules, designating the longest serving member as next in line of succession.
Now, caucus members are suggesting diversity should trump seniority, coalescing around Meeks even though Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) is the next likely successor to Engel on Foreign Affairs.
“I don’t want to start measuring drapes, but I think in terms of foreign policy depth, in terms of acumen, in terms of passion, in terms of someone who’s a patriot, in terms of someone who wants to foster greater relationships with the global community, you can’t find a better person than my mentor, big brother and friend Greg Meeks — that’s for sure,” said Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.).
An African American heading the committee, Carson said, would be “monumental” and “historical.” “It’s necessary.”
The committee has passed over Sherman once for the panel’s top Democratic slot in favor of the third-ranking Democrat. In 2012, members objected to how a PAC supporting him sent out a mailer to voters warning that House members Maxine Waters, Barney Frank and Barbara Boxer supported his opponent Howard Berman, who happened to be the panel’s top Democrat. Sherman disavowed the mailing, but Engel got the top post.
Meeks, for his part, isn’t ruling it out.
“There’s never been an African American chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” he said. “I’ll be willing to talk once I know if Mr. Engel has won or lost. It’s important to talk about diversity in every which way, but let me try to help Mr. Engel win.”