Black Caucus May Face Leadership Race

Posted November 11, 2010 at 3:29pm

A competitive race is brewing over who will lead the Congressional Black Caucus in the next Congress.

Third-term Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) has declared his candidacy and is actively seeking support for the post, and eight-term Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) is considering jumping into the race as well. Sources say other candidates could also end up in the mix.

The group, which sources said would meet in emergency session Monday night to discuss the contentious Minority Whip race between Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), could hold its own leadership elections as soon as Wednesday at it next regularly scheduled meeting. 

CBC Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Cleaver have both come out strongly in favor of Clyburn, the most senior African-American Member of Congress, for Whip. Jackson Lee said she is looking forward to that race being resolved quickly.

Cleaver, the group’s first vice chairman, informed Lee in September of his intention to run for CBC chairman and sent a letter to the group’s 41 other members asking for their support. Cleaver said he’s since spoken with “all but a handful” of his fellow CBC members and said he’d gotten an overwhelmingly positive reception.

The former Kansas City mayor said has could be particularly well-positioned to lead the CBC next Congress because he had strong ties to Republicans and is willing to work across the aisle when possible.

“I have friends on the other side with whom I work, and I don’t know of a strained relationship I have with anybody out of the 435,” Cleaver said. “I get along well with everybody, and I think that’s going to be necessary for the new CBC chair, no matter who that is. What we don’t need is a bomb thrower.”

Cleaver said that he likes and respects Jackson Lee, who would be a “formidable opponent,” and that he wanted the race, if there is one, to be amicable.

Jackson Lee said she is interested in the position but has not formally declared her candidacy. She is still talking with fellow CBCers and plans to make a decision in the coming days.

Jackson Lee said she felt it was important for the CBC chairman to showcase its membership to the broader public.

“One secret is how diverse our caucus is,” Jackson Lee said. “I want to make sure those talented individual members are being used in leadership roles.”

Jackson Lee said that if she were to chair the caucus, she would focus on being inclusive of all ideas within the caucus, taking a collaborative approach and having the CBC put forward its own legislative initiatives. She also said she would look for opportunities to highlight the talents of the members’ spouses.

Among the issues that the next CBC chairman likely will face is the addition of at least one Republican to the group. Rep.-elect Allen West (Fla.) has said he plans to join — making him the third GOP member in the group’s 40-year history. The other newly elected black Republican, Tim Scott of South Carolina, has said he is leaning against joining the group. 

The CBC has a nondiscriminatory provision in its bylaws. Cleaver said Republicans are welcome but that the addition of Republicans could subtly shift how the group operates.

“We’re going to probably make changes to make sure that everyone feels comfortable in dealing with issues that are unique to African-Americans,” he said, adding that the need to create jobs and chip away at the high unemployment rate in the black community were causes that should bridge any partisan divide. “We still have those issues that we hope the Republican African-Americans will be concerned with as well.”

But Cleaver cautioned that bipartisan membership would not dramatically change the organization. 

“There’s gong to be times, obviously, where issues that they may want to discuss are in conflict with where we are going, and they may choose not to join,” he said. “It’s not going to be up to us. It’s going to be up to them.”

Other names that have been batted around as potential candidates to chair the caucus are Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who is a Chief Deputy Whip, and Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). But Johnson spokesman Andy Phelan said that while it “would be a huge honor” to one day chair the CBC, his boss was “not making any overtures in that direction” and “is focused on other priorities.”

Butterfield’s office did not return a call requesting comment.