Black Democrats Feel Overlooked

Rep. William Jeffersonm D-Louisiana, 2000 AP

As House Democrats pick a new leader for their fund-raising committee, black lawmakers are again protesting about being overlooked for key positions despite delivering millions of votes each year.

Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson has been lobbying to replace Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But Jefferson's prospects of getting the plum assignment are anything but certain since the elevation earlier of this month of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to House minority leader. The job may go to Rep. Martin Frost, a Texan who challenged Pelosi for the leader's job before dropping out of the race. Frost has chaired the committee twice before.

Pelosi, the first woman to lead the party in either the House or Senate, also approached Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., about taking the job, but he declined, according to a Markey aide.

Jefferson would be the first black to chair the campaign committee. Many black Democrats are clearly frustrated that his appointment is not a done deal.

"It is time for diversity to show its head," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. All 38 members of the caucus are Democrats. "We want to have input with the Democratic caucus of the House. We get frequently labeled as the base but the base is rarely heard from when it comes to decisions related to the DCCC."

Jefferson declined to comment for this story. According to party sources, he raised $1 million during the last election cycle for the DCCC. Frost raised $4.1 million.

In a letter to Pelosi, the black caucus noted that Jefferson chaired this year's annual fund-raising dinner for the DCCC, which brought in $5.2 million.

"It is critical that the next DCCC chair be a visionary with a proven record of raising money," the letter said. "Congressman Jefferson is that person."

Pelosi's office said no decision has been made on the position and noted that Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who is black, was elected vice chairman of the caucus last week.

"That means that Mr. Clyburn in the future will be looked upon. If there are any more openings he is one of the members who will be looked at to progress," said Cindy Jimenez, a spokeswoman for Pelosi. "That's how you start."

"Just voting for someone to be in the vice chair is a vote of confidence with this group that they are significant and we are empowering them and we want them to be in our leadership," Jimenez said. "I think it sends a very strong message."

Nonetheless, complaints remain that there have been too few blacks in leadership jobs within the Democratic Party.

Former Rep. Bill Gray of Pennsylvania became the No. 2 Democrat in 1989 before retiring two years later. The late Ron Brown in 1989 became the first black to chair the Democratic National Committee.

Some blacks were angered last year when party leaders pushed Terry McAuliffe to head the Democratic National Committee over Maynard Jackson, a former Atlanta mayor who is black.

Meanwhile, Republicans prominently featured Rep. J.C. Watts, who is retiring this year after serving as chairman of the Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the House GOP leadership.

Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said black Democrats are right to complain.

"You've got to think about the fact that everybody acknowledges how critical the black vote is to the Democratic Party. Then, when it comes to showing them how critical they are by giving them top positions, they don't do it," Walters said.

But Walters also blamed black politicians.

"They've got to do a better job of leveraging black voting power," Walters said. "You have to shake things up to get what you want."

Johnson said: "It's like anything else. We end up seeing the same faces in leadership. There's nothing wrong with those leaders but it is indeed time to try someone else's talent."

By Janelle Carter
  • Lloyd Vries

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