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With ranks growing, Congressional Black Caucus poised to flex its muscle

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Paul Kane, Washington Post, November 27, 2018 | comments

The Congressional Black Caucus is flexing its muscle like never before, poised to claim a pair of leadership slots in the House Democratic majority and a handful of committee chairman’s gavels.

The new clout comes from a significant gain in African American members, nine total. If all nine join the CBC, as expected, they will push the caucus’s voting bloc to 52 members of the roughly 235 House Democrats expected next year. The CBC would account for 22 percent of all Democratic votes.

And these incoming members are a historic bunch who will give the CBC more influence in terms of the constituents they represent and greater clout with the Democratic leadership team looking to secure this new majority for many years.

These victories also present something resembling growing pains for the CBC, with a generational challenge to a group that has long been home to some of the party’s most influential elder statesmen and will now be populated with multiple rising stars.

Come January, more than half of the CBC will have served eight years or less. Until January, that crop of Democrats will never have served in a House majority.

And that generational clash is playing out in a hotly contested battle for one of the party leadership posts, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

House Democratic leaders find strength in numbers to fight challenge to Pelosi

On one side is Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), a 20-year veteran with deep ties to the most liberal flank of Democrats, and on the other is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), who is finishing his third term representing Brooklyn.

Jeffries, 48, has framed the leadership race as very much a generational passing of the torch, hoping for this new crowd to fill out the lower ranks of the leadership team dominated for more than a decade by Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.).

“There will be opportunities for the next generation of Democrats to rise up into the leadership ranks in a blended capacity. And, I think that’s what many of us are hoping to see,” Jeffries said Monday on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily.”

Lee, 72, has argued that her vast experience will help the more than 60 incoming members of the Democratic freshman class.

“My experience and being a person who has had to really negotiate my way through here — a lot of what I’ve learned I can help them with and help them find their paths and support them,” she told The Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck as she was leaving a forum for leadership candidates Tuesday with rank-and-file Democrats.

Whichever Democrat wins, two CBC members will be in the top five leadership slots for the first time in House history. For the past 16 years, Clyburn has served as the only CBC member in the elected Democratic leadership, moving up to the No. 3 slot behind Pelosi and Hoyer.

In the majority, Clyburn will reclaim the whip position.

The caucus chair, while technically No. 5, comes with a larger profile and portfolio than the loosely defined position of assistant Democratic leader, the No. 4 position.

Either Lee or Jeffries will effectively become the face of the caucus. The chair runs every Democratic meeting, including the annual issues retreat at a resort destination, and will host weekly news briefings after caucus meetings.

It is a sign of CBC clout that one of the most hotly contested down-ballot races pits two of its members against one another, without any other Democrat challenging them.

Jeffries finds himself mentioned among a handful of younger Democrats who could one day take the reins from the top leaders — as does the current CBC chairman, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (La.).

Many see Jeffries and Richmond, 45, with the potential to one day make history as the first black House speaker.

Exiting the leadership forum, Jeffries called for unity once these elections finish. “We’re going to need to come together because there are real issues we have to tackle on behalf of the American people,” he said.

The CBC is likely to have a total of 56 members next year, including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), as well as two nonvoting delegates.

Perhaps most significant for the CBC is the major push that black Democrats made into districts that have been traditionally white strongholds in the suburbs.

House win unleashes majority-size ambitions among younger Democrats

Of the nine black Democrats who won their first race this year, four are billed as “majority makers” — Democrats who won seats previously held by Republicans. A fifth won in a traditional swing seat outside Las Vegas that has gone back and forth this decade.

This group includes Colin Allred, a former National Football League player who ousted longtime Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) in a suburban Dallas district where Democrats did not even field a candidate two years ago.

In a special election last year, Democrats poured a record $30 million into the suburbs north of Atlanta for Jon Ossoff, who was a 30-year-old former congressional staffer. He came up short, only to watch Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate whose son was killed in a shooting, run an under-the-radar race to victory over the same Republican.

For decades, the all-white leadership has taken CBC seats for granted, seeing them as heavily Democratic districts in urban strongholds that will remain in their corner no matter who holds them.

Now, leaders have to cater to these new CBC members to preserve their majority in two years.

Traditionally, these are the districts where party leaders begin recruiting for statewide races, putting more CBC members in the pipeline to join Booker and Harris in the Senate.

And once Democrats formally take over next year, black chairmen will be wielding some of the most important committee gavels, with a record high five in charge. The American public will quickly get to know Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) as he runs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s investigations into the Trump administration.

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (Va.), the incoming chairman of what will be renamed the Education and Labor Committee, was blunt about how he would oversee Trump’s Department of Education.

“It enables us to upset the agenda,” Scott said.

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