Friday, May 6, 2005

About 35 years after its founding, Congressional Black Caucus members no longer vote lock step with each other and the Democratic Party, reflecting a significant change in the economic status and demographics of their constituents and their own political aspirations.

“At one time, it was easy for a black legislator to say ‘When I vote this way, my constituents will like this,’” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, a former caucus chairman now in his sixth term in Congress.

Mr. Cummings said the economic and racial diversity of his Baltimore-based district has exploded in less than a decade, and growing wealth in his district has caused him to have to strike more of a balance in the way he votes.

“It is a blessing that we are now moving into these diverse populated districts, but at the same time it brings new challenges,” he said. “Some don’t like it, but I guess it is the price we pay for progress and being relatively successful.”

In the early days, members said, the caucus’ mantra went hand in hand with President Johnson’s vision to use federal policies to close disparities in employment, wealth, health care and civil rights between blacks and whites.

“When we first started out, we were dealing with a dozen members, and man, it was easy,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, a founding member of the caucus.

But as the American social climate has changed and more blacks have moved out of poverty — only a quarter of blacks are at the poverty level today, compared to more than half in 1965 — the politics have changed, as well. More blacks are interested in lower taxes and pro-business policies that will lead to job growth.

The changes have played out on a series of votes this year, such as passage of the Republican-led bankruptcy bill, which 10 members of the caucus voted for, and elimination of the estate tax, which drew eight votes from the 41-member caucus.

Five members, all Democrats, voted for both measures: Reps. David Scott and Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia, Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee and William J. Jefferson of Louisiana.

The caucus was founded in 1969 by 13 members of the House, primarily representing urban districts in the Northeast, Midwest and far West. Though it remains all-Democratic, it now has grown to 41 members, including a senator, Barack Obama of Illinois, and has spread to the booming suburbs near Southern cities.

Mr. Scott, an honors graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who went on to establish his own advertising agency, is the first black politician to be elected to a Southern district that was less than 40 percent black.

“It is important that there be a rich political diversity in the Black Caucus because there is a rich diversity in America and within the black community,” he said.

As a businessman, Mr. Scott said voting for the bankruptcy bill and elimination of the estate tax was easy.

“The business of America is business, and Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in America because we are pro-business,” he said.

Although Mr. Scott said the Democratic Party still represents the best avenue for change, his political allegiance is not strongly tied to the party — the state party chairman ran against him in 2001. He added that the greatest disparity between whites and minorities “is money.”

“So do I leave Wharton and a wealth of knowledge from that institution and 20 years in business behind, or do I bring that and add that to the Black Caucus?” Mr. Scott asked.

Nowhere are the demographic changes more evident than in Maryland.

“I represent the inner city of Baltimore,” Mr. Cummings said. “But in my district, I represent people making more than $250,000 a year, black people, and we have some poor whites, some rich whites and poor blacks, but the vast majority, if you can target a majority, are lower-middle-economic blacks.”

Mr. Wynn, who represents Prince George’s County, the wealthiest predominantly black county in the country, said his votes always have been consistent.

“I campaigned on job creation and economic growth 13 years ago, and I don’t view [my votes] as a change,” said Mr. Wynn, whose district has a high concentration of both large and small black-owned businesses. “Most of my votes are tied to job growth, wealth creation and small- and minority-business growth.”

“Almost all in the minority-business community supported elimination of the estate tax. Access to capital has been a big issue, and small businesses and minority businesses are being hurt by unnecessary bankruptcy,” he said.

Mr. Conyers said the chance for bigger political opportunities also has had an effect.

“We have a guy who might run for Senate, and he’s got to cool off and lay back, and another planning a presidential run and another person who is coming back after getting taken out,” he said.

A recent editorial on criticized caucus members who voted for the bankruptcy and estate-tax bills, accusing them of being bought off by corporations and wealthy campaign donors and betraying core Democratic values.

But Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat and another founding member of the caucus, said the notion the caucus is losing cohesion is ridiculous.

“Why any member would be voting for the bankruptcy bill or estate-tax repeal or for making the tax cuts permanent or any of those things is just stupid, but it doesn’t tear us apart because whether it is a speaker or a member, we only have one vote,” he said.

“We have to be very, very tolerant of a person that votes stupid, because they may think they have a good reason and they are the ones who come down here, so you may think the vote is stupid but they know what they are doing,” Mr. Rangel said.

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