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Senate Democrats, CBC Plan Summit

In the first of what they say will be a series of efforts to shore up support among a critical constituency with no representation in their chamber, Senate Democrats will join black Congressional leaders later this month in a summit.

With Republicans controlling the White House and the real prospect of expanding GOP majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats are determined to block any attempt to erode support among their most reliable backers. The planned summit parallels a similar effort launched earlier this year by Congressional Republicans, which was designed to address similar issues Democrats will tackle later this month. Both parties have adopted multi-pronged approaches to the fight, designed to cater to the needs of a black constituency that in recent election cycles has expressed frustration over being ignored.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and the Congressional Black Caucus chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), said Wednesday that the Democratic summit, to be held June 26, will reaffirm Democrats’ commitment to blacks and their issues, bolster outreach to that constituency and encourage black participation in politics, both at the ballot box and in running for office.

Some 250 individuals, including Senators and black leaders from across the country, are expected to attend the forum. The day-long session will focus on issues which Democrats know they need to have the upper hand in 2004, including education, civil rights, health care, jobs and the economy.

The summit will mark the beginning of a series of initiatives by Senate Democrats to assure their connection with black voters. Daschle said beyond the numerous meetings he has already held with black leaders, his Caucus will also work with the constituency to develop regional issue papers and hold regular conference calls and local town hall forums.

“All of these things, in addition to the summit, matter to us,” Daschle said. “You are going to see us address it a lot more.”

Cummings said while the Democratic Party has solidly represented the black community, the black vote cannot be taken for granted.

“This is just a start,” Cummings said. “But the fact is the Democratic Party has been very sensitive to African-American voters and African-American people. As I see it, it’s a start and it certainly, I’m sure, will remind voters of the concerns of African-American people.”

Currently Democrats win the black voting block by a 10-1 margin, a statistic of major importance to Democratic leaders.

“We are grateful for their deep support,” Daschle said. “The last thing we want to do is take it for granted. We have to earn it.”

In addition to Cummings and Daschle’s involvement, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is playing a key role in helping their party solidify support among black voters.

Clinton has strong ties to the black community due in part to the unbending relationship her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, enjoyed from that constituency. Now, in her role as chairwoman of the Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee, Clinton is serving as a chief liaison to blacks.

“She has been probably as aggressive a chair as we have ever had,” Daschle said. “She continues to meet with African-American leaders … and is integrally involved in the planning [of the event] all the way.”

Daschle and Cummings made clear the Democratic summit is not a reaction to that of the GOP, stressing it has been on the calendar since the beginning of the Congress.

“It was not something we just started, it was something in the works for a good while,” Cummings said.

Highlights of the summit include round-table issue discussions and a town hall-style session with young black leaders.

Among those invited are mayors of big cities with large black populations, including Mayors John Street of Philadelphia, Shirley Franklin of Atlanta and Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit. Another invited guest includes Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker, whom Democrats are trying to woo for a run at the seat being vacated by Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.).

The Democratic summit comes on the heels of a meeting between more than 350 black leaders and Congressional Republicans last month. Republicans also recently hosted a national forum for the presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Beyond those highly publicized events, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) meets privately with conservative black leaders and administration officials each month to discuss issues of importance to the community.

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