It is “critical” that the Congressional Black Caucus remain an all-black organization, one of the CBC’s founders has said in a strategy memo.
“The CBC welcomes support from others in the House and Senate, especially those with liberal credentials, but it is critical that its membership remain exclusively African American,” retired Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr. wrote earlier this year to the CBC.
Mr. Clay’s letter — distributed by his son, Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., Missouri Democrat — prompted a CBC meeting before the August recess.
“The members have discussed it, and we supported the tradition that only African-Americans have been full members of the CBC, but as always we will work with anyone as our coalition partners and some have become honorary members,” said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Michigan Democrat, who has been all but confirmed as the caucus’ chairman for the 110th Congress.
The Clay letter was written in response to concerns that two Jewish congressional candidates, Tennessee state Rep. Steve Cohen and New York City Councilman David Yassky, both Democrats, would apply for CBC membership if elected from majority-black districts.
Neither candidate has announced plans to seek CBC membership, and some caucus members were skeptical of suggestions they would, with one CBC member saying that such talk might be “political ploys to bolster their image with the black constituency they are seeking to represent.”
But with Election Day still two months away, the question addressed by the Clay letter remains hypothetical.
“And that is just the point,” said one CBC member, who did not wish to be identified. “We should not be taking a position on an academic question considering neither of these guys has been elected.”
In his letter, Mr. Clay said the CBC would work with whites, Asians and Pacific islanders, Hispanics, Democrats, and Republicans to move legislation that furthers its agenda, but only blacks can be official voting members.
Mr. Clay recalled that Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, attempted to join the organization in 1975. “Although Stark was sincere, intentions honest and honorable and record on civil rights impeccable, after thoughtfully and thoroughly examining the issue, a formal vote was taken that rejected his application,” Mr. Clay wrote.
The issue arose this summer because of two unusual situations for Democrats.
In Tennessee’s 9th District, after Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. opted to run for Senate, 15 Democrats entered the campaign for the seat, which had previously been held by Mr. Ford’s father. Mr. Cohen won the Aug. 3 primary with 31 percent of the vote in the Memphis-area district, where 60 percent of voters are black. Mr. Cohen will face Republican Mark White and independent candidate Jake Ford, Harold Jr.’s brother, in November.
A similar situation could occur after next week’s Democratic primary in New York’s 11th District, where Rep. Major R. Owens is retiring. That Brooklyn district is nearly 60 percent black, as are Mr. Yassky’s three rivals for the nomination. But in the four-way primary, Mr. Yassky — who has raised $1.4 million for the campaign — may emerge as a plurality winner in the solidly Democratic district.
No white politician has held the seat since 1960 when a federal judge ordered the district be reapportioned, and it has historical significance as it was once held by Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and to run for the presidency in 1972. Mr. Owens — whose son is a candidate for the seat — has called Mr. Yassky a “colonizer.”
Mr. Yassky has not said he intends to apply for CBC membership. “He has never said he would; he would certainly like to work with them, but it is not up to him. It is [the CBC’s] decision on whether he can join,” said Yassky spokesman Evan Theis.
The issue of white politicians attempting to join black political groups came up most recently last year in Tennessee when state Rep. Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Knoxville, attempted to join the Tennessee Black Caucus. After his application was rejected, Mr. Campfield angered black lawmakers by saying the group’s bylaws were more exclusionary than the Ku Klux Klan.
In the past, the Congressional Black Caucus has been criticized by some black Republicans. Former Rep. Gary A. Franks, Connecticut Republican, was nearly ousted from the group for opposing the creation of majority-minority districts. The CBC’s chairman at the time, Kweisi Mfume — the Maryland Democrat who is currently running for Senate — intervened and made it clear that the group was bipartisan.