Thursday, August 31, 2006

The trend of incumbent Democratic lawmakers facing primary challenges from the left is not sparing black lawmakers, despite their generally being among the party’s more liberal representatives and blacks being the party’s most loyal constituency.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, is facing a strong primary challenge from Prince George’s County lawyer Donna Edwards, who says he is too conservative to represent his predominantly black constituency. The most unlikely Congressional Black Caucus member, Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, faced similar charges from his opponent Philip Jackson in the primary.

“Our opponent in the primary attempted to use that strategy against Mr. Rush in relation to his vote for the energy bill last year,” said a staffer for Mr. Rush.

Mr. Rush is a former Black Panther and recognized as one of the most liberal members of Congress yet he and Mr. Wynn were both attacked by their opponents for supporting the energy bill, a choice both men said they made after they successfully worked out a deal in committee to increase federal low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP) by $3 billion.

“My general view is that the Democratic Party used to be the big tent party where everyone is allowed to express their views; now it is being taken over by these bloggers and purists who can only see one way of thinking,” Mr. Wynn said. “We can think for ourselves and not for somebody else’s idea of what a liberal is supposed to be.”

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, such as the group’s chairman Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, will face black Republicans in November, but the most serious challengers have been fellow party members using this new strategy of tagging their opponents as “conservative sympathizers.”

“The policy frame of reference has changed,” said Ronald Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. The party “has shifted to the left.” While he said he doubts black candidates will lose an election due to this shift, “they will get a lot of questions about it.”

Notions that Mr. Rush is a Republican ally were laughable to Black Caucus members, but support for anything perceived to be Republican-led is being used this year by some to target Democrats as enemies of the party.

Democratic consultant Donna Brazile said black politicians cannot afford to allow themselves to be stereotyped or forced into one mold.

“Some liberals are asking black members to vote 100 percent of the time with the party with no flexibility,” she said, despite their constituency or offices they are seeking.

Mr. Wynn said he was surprised that his voting with the party 88 percent of the time could be considered not good enough. He called the criticism from the left “a very district-to-district strategy; it takes a lot of different forms.”

The Edwards Web site features endorsements from Gloria Steinem and Danny Glover, and a cartoon portraying Mr. Wynn’s pockets stuffed with money and bragging on his “new friends” — “Halliburton” and “big banks.” Such important liberal bloggers as FireDogLake and MyDD also have boosted Mrs. Edwards’ candidacy.

Former Democrat and lobbyist Oliver Kellman said this leftward surge has been coming on for a few years and is the reason he left the party.

“This happens when any change of view comes up within the Democratic Party; it is close-minded to other people having a different idea,” said Mr. Kellman, who once served as chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas.

He said the shift has undercut the true nature of the party: “The Democratic Party is no longer the voice of the people. But a group of folks are standing up and saying they are going to speak for the people, and that is why you are seeing Al Wynn and Bobby Rush being targeted.”

He said the unwillingness of some Democrats to let Black Caucus members moderate their voting records could hurt the futures of black politicians such Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat, who is running for the U.S. Senate in the Republican-leaning state.

Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, is also a champion of business development and economic empowerment. His voting record is similar to Mr. Ford, Mr. Wynn and many others who have voted for policies now being characterized as Republican agenda items, like eliminating the death tax, the Terri Schiavo protection bill, and an energy bill for which 75 Democrats voted.

“We shouldn’t have to just be about social programs, but we should also be able to talk about employment, job creation, business development and economic empowerment,” Mr. Wynn said.

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