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CBC Seeks to Boost Democratic Party Role

On the heels of a stinging 2002 election and facing an ongoing struggle for recognition within the Democratic Party, the Congressional Black Caucus is reaching out to top party leaders and acting early to ensure the current election cycle doesn’t leave its interests behind.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the new chairman of the CBC, said the group is taking a new approach, trying to speak more aggressively on issues — from affirmative action to the budget to the war in Iraq — and work with powerful Democrats and Republicans to make its agenda and candidates relevant.

“We’re determined to make a difference,” Cummings said during a meeting of CBC officials Thursday with Roll Call reporters and editors.

Saying the caucus believes black voters represent the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, Cummings said the group is aggressively lobbying Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) to enlist black candidates for Congress.

Cummings has even met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to try to put the CBC agenda on the majority party’s radar screen.

What’s more, the group is for the first time holding a series of national presidential debates to get candidates on the record on key issues important to black Americans — such as education, health care and civil rights.

The CBC will host four presidential forums this year in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Detroit and Tougalloo, Miss. Cummings said the Democratic hopefuls — including the two black candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) — are eager to participate.

“We want to get ahead of the primary season,” Cummings said.

The CBC does not plan to endorse a presidential candidate, leaving that to individual Members. But, said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), CBC first vice chairwoman: “We want to know where these candidates stand.”

Beyond the White House, the CBC is also beginning a series of issue forums to mobilize black voters and energize the electorate around its core issues. The CBC has already hosted a town hall event in Houston and plans others this year in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida.

Cummings said the CBC will push hard to get black representation in the Senate, focusing particularly in Georgia, where Democratic Sen. Zell Miller has announced he will not seek another term.

“Corzine is looking at several races and how we as a caucus can help recruit [someone] to run,” Cummings said.

“When it comes to candidates, we want to play an integral role in choosing candidates and we want to have an opportunity to have a say early,” he added.

Corzine said he is responding, noting he’s had a number of good conversations with black and Hispanic candidates.

“We want a broad diversity of candidates to reflect the community where people come from,” the DSCC chairman said.

Another opportunity to elect a black Senator may be Illinois, where state Sen. Barack Obama is in a crowded primary field vying for the right to try to oust Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

The CBC is coming off a painful 2002 election in which two of its 39 members — Reps. Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) and Earl Hilliard (Ala.) — were defeated by fellow black Democrats. Their replacements, Reps. Denise Majette (Ga.) and Artur Davis (Ala.), put together well-financed bids likely steered by national Jewish organizations unhappy with the stances of McKinney and Hilliard.

Despite replacing another CBC member, Majette said she’s experienced no ill will and is “forming good relationships” within the caucus. CBC members helped her campaign and continue to support her in Congress.

“Collectively everyone was very welcoming,” she said. “It has been a very good experience for me so far.”

Davis said he too has been well received, noting that “after my primary I made every effort to proactively reach out to members of the CBC.”

Although the CBC lost two of its own, Cummings said he is happy to have gained two new members in the process.

“We’re moving forward and addressing the big picture,” the Maryland lawmaker said.

As part of that, black House Members are trying to improve their alliances with the Jewish community and “find the things that we have in common.”

The CBC also is trying bolster its strength by aligning with other groups, including the Congressional Hispanic and the Congressional Asian Pacific American caucuses.

The CBC has struggled for a stronger position within the Democratic Party and continues to push for diversity within the Caucus through candidate recruitment and party hiring.

The group found some frustration late last year when new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) tapped Matsui, a fellow Californian, to head the DCCC, rebuffing CBC pleas to choose Rep. William Jefferson (La.).

Bitter CBC members made clear they wanted some payoff elsewhere. Pelosi responded, giving the group key slots on Ways and Means, Appropriations and Homeland Security.

“As we went down the line, I think we did pretty good,” Cummings said. “Were we satisfied? Of course not. We want more. We always want more.”

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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