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.

Dean has built a platform of unification along class-based economic concerns, as opposed to sensationalized, racially based moral concerns. Dean's repudiation of the Southern strategy in the party has appealed to many, though his bungled Confederate flag line put the worst possible spin on his intentions.

"I think that's absolutely the most important thing he could've said," remarked Simmons on the now infamous flag statement, the wording of which Simmons termed clumsy. "I am sorry that Reverend Sharpton, who has been my candidate, attacked him, because I know right now that he's the most progressive of the people in the front."

"This is not about personalities," Jackson told the Voice at the ALC. "This is about a substantive program that can help change the quality of life for the people that we represent." Frank Watkins, Jackson spokesperson, said the congressman's endorsement is based on Dean's early opposition to the war in Iraq, his grassroots support, and his ability to raise money.

Watkins cited Dean's "simple, clear, and positive message" of creating jobs, massively improving education, and providing health care for all Americans as the basis for Jackson's support. "Those are pretty substantive reasons taken together," he said. Jackson is currently putting forward some items addressing issues of concern to black and poor people—heath care, education, and the right to vote—as proposed constitutional amendments rather than as standard bills.

Brooklyn's Major Owens, one of the first CBC members to back Dean, said, "He will go into Washington and be able to not owe the usual people, which means that there'll be a place at the table for more blacks and minorities." But does a seat at the table guarantee one being served a plate?

Dean's message of unification along lines of economic interests may have a downside for African Americans. Watkins himself points out that affirmative action, for instance, brought greater benefits to white women than it benefited African Americans.

"There are many African Americans whose needs are essentially the same as anybody else's," said Chicago's Representative Danny K. Davis. "But then there's a large group of African Americans whose needs go beyond those of the general population, and I don't see a great deal of focus on those needs."

"I'm trying to get a referendum on the ballot in Illinois calling for drug treatment on demand," said Davis, who also cites the reclamation of ex-offenders as a serious issue, as well as federal funding to historically black colleges.

On the issue of quality education for all, some CBC members see the failure of the Bush administration to sufficiently fund its highly publicized "No Child Left Behind" legislation as another situation that must be rectified. "He left it all behind," said Owens. "After getting all that publicity and making it seem that he's the new education president, he set up a budget that didn't have the money he promised within it."

Owens is also appalled at the condition of the country's infrastructure, particularly school buildings, and sees a Roosevelt-type public works program as a plan of action. "Instead of pouring it into Iraq, let's put $87 billion into the economy here, to build highways, to build schools, [with] revenue sharing with the cities and states so that they don't have to lay off people who are teachers or sanitation workers."

A crucial step in obtaining socio-political empowerment is the need to connect with the youth. "We got to get young folks [ages] 18 to 35 involved in the politics through voting because that's the only way," said Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, a supporter of Senator John Kerry. "That's the only way we changed things in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s—and now in the 21st century we have to do it en masse."

Representative Davis's support of fellow Chicagoan Carol Moseley Braun is something akin to a crusade. "Part of the reason to keep supporting her is so that we can bring these barriers down," said Davis. "If not today, 10 years from now so that if my granddaughter wants to run for president she won't be perceived as an automatic loser because she's African American and a woman."

State Representative Alisha Thomas, who was elected to the Georgia State Legislature a year ago at age 23, takes it even further. "I believe that young people are not leaders of tomorrow. We are leaders of today," said Thomas. "When you look at any movement that we've had, including the civil rights movement, it was young folks." She advocates holding leaders to their word. "We don't vote nor do we hold the people that we elect accountable. . . . Until we are held accountable as elected officials, we'll continue to have the same kind of cycles."

In the end, only direct action from the African American community will prevent a black agenda from being swept away by well-meaning but potentially dangerous color-blind politics. "Why should [the candidates] run the risk, in their minds, of alienating another segment of the population in order to deal with specific issues if we're not registered to vote and if we're not organized and we're not raising hell about it," said Davis. "Power concedes nothing without a demand. Even those people that like you."

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