The 2004 Black Agenda

Will Candidates Deliver for the African American Vote?

During September's Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), African American elected officials were meeting in the D.C. convention center on an array of issues facing black communities—including quality education, eco-political empowerment, universal health care, the war abroad, and the war on drugs. Over two months have passed since then and black politicians have yet to issue a collective agenda advocating the interests of African American communities in this election year.

But with the first primaries taking place next month, individual black legislators are making their choices from among candidates for the Democratic nomination and they have begun to articulate what they want for their constituencies.

"We expect [the candidates] to address our issues. To speak out on them, and to commit to dealing with them," said Representative William Jefferson, CBC Foundation chair, at the ALC. "We expect them to have a plan that's going to deliver for us. We're going to hold them—each one of them—to articulate a plan for African Americans that's realistic, that's fundable, that we can count on them to support."

With so few candidates having announced any plans that address the needs of black communities, it is unclear what precisely blacks will get in return for backing one of them.

"There needs to be an agenda before there is an exchange of votes," said Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile, an agenda that she says she is not hearing and that it's not the sole responsibility of the CBC to formulate. Brazile sees that duty belonging to a broad-based coalition of interests including elected officials, academics, and activists. "It's too early in the process," Brazile said.

Russell Simmons, chair of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), an advocacy group for the youth vote, has met with all the Democrats running except Clark and says demands should be made now. "When I hear someone say: 'I agree with you 100 percent but we can't do that now because the primaries are here' . . . [I say] 'If you can't take an agenda [that's good for us] to win a primary, do you think I think you're going to use that for the election?' "

"There's too many candidates for people really to focus on," said Harlem representative Charles Rangel, who recently endorsed General Wesley Clark. "I think after [the] Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina [primaries], we'll have fewer people and fewer soundbites and more people will concentrate on not just the substantive issues but, just as importantly, who can best win."

"I want any candidate that has the most likely chance to beat George Bush, period," said Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, dean of the CBC. "Who could be worse than George Bush?" Conyers sees health care as the top priority and has been seen publicly with Dean, although he has not officially endorsed a candidate. As for more specific demands, Conyers said, "Once we get a Democratic candidate, who do you think, when we win, is going to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee?" the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee told the Voice. "I don't have to get any agreements in advance."

CBC opposition to the war in Iraq is practically unanimous and most officials interviewed by the Voice put the involvement in Iraq and the repeal of the USA Patriot Act near the top of their list of concerns. "We're rebuilding Baghdad at the expense of our cities, at the expense of our education, at the expense of Medicare," said Rangel. "We're wiping out Medicaid. There's no money in the Social Security trust fund."

"[The candidates] have got to say that we'll go in and repeal the Patriot Act, which is eroding civil liberties," says Representative Barbara Lee of California. "I think that they've got to be willing to say we're going to go in and look at mandatory minimum sentencing. That we're going to revise the sentencing laws. . . . I think they need to come in talking about what they are going to repeal."

Howard Dean supporter Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia wants a repeal of all, not just some, of the Bush tax cuts, a position Dean has advocated. "Even investors are skeptical about all these tax cuts, and what they may do long-term to the budget," said Scott. Simmons, who thinks the eradication of poverty and ignorance must be a national priority, agreed: "You're not going to help poverty by giving me a tax break."

Scott also seeks to end Bush's faith-based initiatives, which he says are an affront to civil rights, another effort that Dean supports.

Thus far among the Democratic candidates, front-runner Dean's anti-war rhetoric has been well received among African Americans, and his efforts to reach out to black leaders have proved most effective. Leading the polls has been an important factor for Dean, one that has hurt Al Sharpton's support. While the CBC as a group is unlikely to endorse anyone now, so far Dean has picked up endorsements from the CBC chair, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, and representatives Scott, Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, and Major Owens of New York.

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