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African-American Politicians Under Attack in Washington

Charles D. Ellison | 11/26/2010, 8:34 a.m.

In 2010, African-American politicians find themselves under siege.

Black political power and influence appears strafed and demolished in less than two weeks time. Even President Barack Obama is not immune as he fends off assaults from both left and right, including a Washington Post column by two prominent Democratic strategists recommending he pass on re-election in 2012.

A combination of scandal, Republican electoral tsunamis and lack of a coordinated response to the new political climate have left Black politicos trapped in a smoky wilderness of uncertainty.

It could not have come at a worse time for African Americans, near paralyzed by unemployment double the national average, record foreclosure rates and a recession which vaporized a quarter of the Black middle class.

Two of the most senior Black Members of Congress -- Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., -- are faced with full-blown ethics "trials" this lame duck session of Congress, with two additional Members -- Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., and Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., -- in the House Ethics Committee pipeline for further consideration.

Rangel's inquiry ended with the Harlem congressman being found guilty on 11 counts and the House Ethics Committee voting for censure. Rangel's demise quickly devolved into the heartbreaking embarrassment of a celebrated, longtime founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus -- who once wielded the gavel to the most powerful committee in Congress -- unable to afford a lawyer.

Yet, observers are left wondering why it went that far, especially after Ethics Committee lead counsel Blake Chisam reluctantly admitted at one point on the record that he saw "... no evidence of corruption" in the Rangel case.

"We're in a period here where due process is inconvenient," says Lauren Victoria Burke of Crewof42.com.

"I hope that my colleagues in Congress, friends, constituents and anyone paying attention will consider my statement and how the Committee has been unfair to me," complained Rangel, rambling defensively in a statement released shortly after his abrupt and reality show-like exit from an adjudicatory subcommittee hearing last Monday. "They can do what they will with me because they have the power and I have no real chance of fighting back."

Waters, once a rhetorical titan and activist member who would famously dress-down House committee witnesses, is barely audible and under the radar. While she vehemently denies any wrongdoing, she's been largely quiet, reserving comment until her trial scheduled before the end of the session.

Rangel, for his part, won't go down without a fight. The New York lawmaker plays hardball with plans to run for ranking minority member on the committee he previously chaired. Obviously, that will be a long shot given the recent censure rebuke.

But, it's not just Rangel and Waters that have the tightly knit, 40-year old CBC worried. The Black Caucus is frantically searching for some footing on the new political landscape. Its predominant Democratic make-up creates a problematic political calculus as it enters a Republican-led Congress next year.

How they decide to interface with the two new Black Republicans on the block, Rep.-elect Tim Scott, S.C., and Rep.-elect Allen West, Fla., is unknown. Still, the newly elected chairman of the CBC, Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., is famously known for his ability to reach across the aisle.

And Cleaver, who barely managed to beat back a belligerent Republican challenger two weeks ago, won't be expected to play defense for the White House all the time.

"We recognize the need to support the president, but there's also the feeling being expressed rather loudly that the White House will become concerned only about the survival of the president in 2012, and we will be out here blowing in the wind," Cleaver said in a telling interview with the Kansas City Star, his hometown newspaper. "We may be moving down two separate paths toward 2012."

"With Cleaver at the wheel, look for a more pointed reality-based appraisal of the CBC's dealings with the White House," notes Burke.

Also set to lose their House chairmanships in January are Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, D-Mich., and Homeland Security chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

Republicans, however, are among the least of the CBC's concerns as the venerable Black political institution finds itself actually having to scrape for leadership positions within its own minority party.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced an impasse-breaking deal to create a brand new No. 3 minority leadership position for loyal deputy and House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., the Democratic Caucus breathed a heavy sigh of relief that a bruising intra-party contest was avoided between Clyburn and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

While many observers said Hoyer had the winning votes lined up, Clyburn still had a spoiler in his pocket: the other 41 House Members of the CBC, including two Maryland Members, who were ready to back their most powerful colleague at all political costs it seemed. Clyburn did not hide his feelings that the contest was about more than just him -- he was on a "mission" to preserve the CBC's influence on the Hill amid devastating losses on Nov. 2.

But, at eleventh hour, Clyburn's resolve buckled under the weight of devotion to Pelosi, who announced a newly chiseled "Assistant Leader" position that would report to her. In the new spot, finalized by a vote from Democratic Members, Clyburn would report to her in a fashion similar to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who now holds the "assistant to the speaker" position.

Satisfied that disaster was averted, Clyburn ran to the Caucus for support. "What we are doing is saying that everybody will maintain their relative position in the 112th," Clyburn said in a CNN interview. "So there is nothing unusual about this, and I was very pleased with the agreement that Speaker Pelosi came with."

A skeptical CBC, eyeing the move with suspicion, wants details. "You mean 'assistant TO THE leader," snapped a source close to the Caucus who did not want to be identified. "Clyburn should have gone all out with it. He looks weak and the CBC doesn't want to look weak along with him."

CBC Chair Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., appeared to confirm as much. "We fully support our current whip, Mr. Clyburn, for the No. 3 position and we're currently reserving judgment on the entire package until we see what the actual portfolio entails in terms of responsibilities," Lee told a group of reporters after a closed-door meeting of the Caucus which discussed, among other things, its fate in the new Congress.

"It's that quintessential example of the rules getting changed when it comes to African American politicians," says The Source Magazine's political editor Jason Johnson. "The fact that Clyburn's position has to be eliminated and re-created is absurd."

But, some observers note that Clyburn did not want ranking Latino Democrat Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) bumped from the leadership caucus, which could have happened under a shake-up.

"Clyburn did not want to bump Becerra, which is smart if you think about it given that [Latino] voting bloc and other issues like immigration. He took the hit, in a way, to keep Becerra in the leadership."

It's not like the Caucus hasn't been in bad spots before. But, this year found the Caucus besieged by an incessant string of high profile troubles peppered with gaffes, missteps and ethics debacles. Lee's reservations reflect a growing sense that the CBC is losing grip as three of its Members lose powerful Committee chairs and eighteen will no longer Chair subcommittees.

The uncomfortable jolt of reality is already spurring bold bids for ranking member positions on major committees as Black members find their bearing.

Outgoing House Government Reform Committee Chair Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), a longtime king of the Brooklyn political machine, wants to stay on as the committee's Ranking Member to the chagrin of leading Democrats -- including one corner that needs him the most: the White House.

Towns is ready to glove-up and go cage match with an emboldened incoming chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the loquacious center-right Congressman who's promised to blast the Obama Administration with a ceaseless barrage of inquiries, probes and subpoenas.

Appearing on a CNBC program on Election Night, Issa argued that the administration was "corrupt and arrogant."

And then there's Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the West Philly political brawler who had announced back in May that if Democrats retained their majority, he would pursue an unorthodox seniority-bucking bid for chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Willing to shake up the antiquated Democratic seniority system Fattah planned to hurdle from his No. 21 spot all the way to the top, directly bumping heads with longtime lawmaker Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA). Now, Fattah says that he's switching gears and gunning for Ranking Minority Member, a move certain to rile both Dicks and senior Democrats who've been waiting in line.

That prompts a larger question: how bad is it?

"I definitely think it's a challenging time," admits Angela Rye, Founder and Director of Strategic Partnerships for D.C.-based IMPACT-DC, an organization closely aligned with the CBC. "But, it's been a challenging time for years. There is a lot of work we can continue to do."

Rye argues, along with other leading Black Democratic strategists, that the CBC still retains some power as former chairs will simply transition into ranking member status.

Johnson partly agrees.

"I'm not willing to claim it's as bad as the nineties where it seemed as if every single Black mayor was under investigation," says the political science professor. "Or when every Black cabinet member in the Clinton Administration was under investigation -- with one ending up dead in a plane crash," citing the tragic and untimely death of former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Still, there is a larger issue of waning Black political influence nationwide. Loss of 19 state legislatures to Republicans, who now wield the ruthless magic wand of redistricting, poses a political life-and-death scenario to the 630 Black state legislators (mostly Democrats) spread throughout the fifty states.

Some are nervous they could lose seats to a happily gerrymandering GOP. In Pennsylvania, longtime political powerhouse state Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, lost his position as the top Democrat on the state House Appropriations Committee following the GOP takeover of Harrisburg.

Even on the Republican side -- and despite major gains for the party on Nov. 2nd -- a chorus of GOP elected officials are calling for the resignation of Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, the party's first Black chair. Recently, Steele's own political director Gentry Collins resigned in a flashy public retort of Steele's tenure.

"In stark contrast [to 2004 and 2008], we enter the 2012 presidential cycle with 100 percent of the RNC's $15 million in lines of credit tapped out, and unpaid bills likely to add millions to that debt," Collins spit in a scathing letter to the RNC.

Republicans, no longer feeling defensive about the lack of diversity in their party after so many GOP minorities winning office, view Steele's ouster as a risk their willing to take.

"I have long championed Michael Steele, not because I'm a partisan, but because the guy has been winning since he's been in office," argues Johnson. "Republicans get the biggest wins they've had in six years and now he's out of a job? I think that's pure racism."