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CBC Seeks to Awaken Its Somnolent PAC

Following the prolific fundraising lead of its most famous member, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Congressional Black Caucus is preparing to dramatically bolster its political arm.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the new chairman of the caucus’ political action committee, said he has already set an ambitious fundraising goal for the account. And while he declined to name it, he said it will be north of $1 million.

If successful, that fundraising push would transform the PAC from a relatively modest operation — it closed March with $138,000 in cash on hand — into a force for the CBC.

“In order to be effective, you have to raise money. And nowadays, you’re talking about millions,” Meeks said.

Pointing to the clout wielded by senior African-American lawmakers, Meeks said the caucus should have little difficulty rounding up more campaign cash. “We should be able to utilize that,” he said.

The CBC boasts four committee chairmen in the House — Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) — as well as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the chamber. Many others head key subcommittee or serve on exclusive panels, such as Meeks, who sits on the Financial Services Committee.

The PAC traditionally has maintained a low profile, doling out only $579,350 since its founding in the 1982 cycle, according to CQ MoneyLine. By comparison, the Blue Dog PAC has handed out $2.3 million since opening its doors in the 1996 cycle. That account, which serves a caucus roughly the same size as the CBC, has raised $1.5 million this cycle through March.

The CBC PAC already claims a solid base of support from established players inside the Beltway. It received contributions last year from the corporate PACs of Wal-Mart, Johnson & Johnson, Comcast, Eli Lilly, Verizon, Microsoft and BNSF Railway, among others. Unions also ponied up, with the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, the International Association of Fire Fighters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees all cutting checks.

But Meeks said he would be taking a page from Obama’s presidential campaign, which has shattered fundraising records, by building a robust grass-roots network to tap smaller contributions.

“There’s a large constituency to reach out to, not only those in Washington, D.C., but those on the Internet. We’re going to go after small donors, as is being done by Sen. Obama,” he said.

Meeks also said that he will be reaching out to Senators who don’t belong to the caucus but have significant African-American populations in their states.

Meeks will convene his first PAC board meeting on Monday. He said his first priority will be letting caucus members know that “it’s their PAC.”

“If they’re faced with a primary challenge, the CBC will be there for them,” he said. In recent months, those challenges have proved real. Eight-term Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who had chaired the CBC PAC since late 2002, lost his seat in a February primary to now-Rep. Donna Edwards. He retired from the House and gave up his leadership duties with the PAC. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), the CBC chairwoman, faces stiff competition from two challengers in her Aug. 5 primary.

Meeks said he is looking to kick off the new fundraising drive with an event in the coming weeks. “We’re looking to make a big splash,” he said.

The push received votes of confidence from sources on and off Capitol Hill. “I have known [Meeks] to be a prolific fundraiser, so it’s only natural to think he can accomplish his goal,” Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said.

Added a Democratic fundraiser, “I think there’s tremendous fundraising potential within the CBC, and a number of members of the caucus do in fact raise a significant amount of money for themselves and others.”

A separate question is whether all the extra money would be necessary. In the weeks before the 2006 elections, the PAC handed out 31 checks, most of them for $5,000, to Democrats in tough races. Since most CBCers represent safe Democratic districts, once they clear their primaries, they face little trouble in November. The PAC therefore was able to spread its money out to incumbents and challengers who aren’t African-American. One exception was then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who ran for an open Senate seat. The PAC gave him $5,000 and contributed an additional $15,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But FEC records show that it also doled out $5,000 each to three other Senate candidates, all victorious: then-Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

“The CBC has always raised enough money to achieve the goals established by the board, which has been to support minority candidates nationally and to encourage African-Americans to vote,” said a former chief of staff to a CBC member who is familiar with the operations of the PAC. “It’s had enough money to not only give direct contributions but also to do independent expenditures on radio and on phones.”

Paul Brathwaite, former executive director of the CBC, said the PAC has a broader role to play in helping to elect Democrats.

“The members enjoy their leadership positions and chairmanships and they like being in the majority,” he said. “The PAC will help ensure that they have the necessary resources to re-elect their members and help the Democrats expand their majority. There are a lot of key races in the House and Senate that they will be asked to play in and will want to play in.”

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