Last week, after a divisive House primary campaign in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, Cuyahoga County Council Member Shontel Brown defeated former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner.
The election to replace Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), who now serves as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, grew into a contest between progressive and establishment factions of the Democratic Party. The stakes were so high to leaders of both factions that some of the most influential Democrats in the country got involved to support their favored candidates.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) both endorsed and campaigned for Turner, while Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) and the Congressional Black Caucus threw their support to Brown.
It’s easy to understand why ideologically aligned figures like Sanders and Ocasio Cortez backed Turner: Had she won, she would have grown the power of the House progressive caucus. What’s less clear is why the CBC decided to back Brown or even weigh in on the race at all.
The CBC is supposed to exist “to ensure that African Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.” And given that both Turner and Brown would presumably fulfill this mission, it appears the CBC was less interested in advancing the interests of Black Americans than in protecting establishment Democrats. And they weren’t particularly subtle about it.
Clyburn, the Democratic majority whip, implied in a speech to voters that he supported Brown because she was less likely than Turner to buck the party, while Reps. Joyce Beaty (D-OH), chair of the CBC, and Greg Meeks (D-NY) emphasized Brown’s commitment to comity, though neither quality guarantees legislative success.
This isn’t the first time the CBC has taken sides in a Democratic primary with no discernible stakes for the caucus or in ways that undermine the caucus’s mission. In 2018, when Rep. Aynna Pressley (D-MA) challenged longtime incumbent Mike Capuano, CBC not only endorsed Capuano, but sent the late civil-rights icon John Lewis to Boston to make the case against Pressley, who ran on the very ideals CBC claims to advance. And in 2020, CBC again endorsed a longtime, white incumbent over a young, progressive, Black challenger when Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) challenged Eliot Engel.
Under different circumstances it might be in the CBC’s interests to support establishment candidates to gain favor with the leadership. But as its members have risen in the ranks, amassed real power, and joined the leadership, they’ve used that clout to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it on behalf of the communities they claim to represent.
The group’s actions reflect its interest in preserving the existing party power structure at the expense of their Black constituencies. And if CBC doesn’t shake this desire for empty power and refocus on its mission, it will risk its credibility and relevance, especially given the significant challenges Black Americans still face.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 19 percent of Black Americans lived in poverty, along with one in four Black children—the highest rate in the nation. Black Americans continue to be disproportionately incarcerated and enrolled in failing schools, while underrepresented in the job and home-ownership markets. And in the past year and a half, they have borne the brunt of COVID-19.
None of these things is the CBC’s fault. But if the group’s purpose is to improve the lives of Black Americans, its efforts should be dedicated to that, not to shoring up recruits who will toe the party-establishment line.
In recent history, relying on goodwill from the party leadership hasn’t always resulted in gains for the CBC’s constituencies. For instance: In 2015, shortly after Paul Ryan became the Republican House Speaker, Democratic leaders effectively excluded the CBC from end-of-year negotiations to fund the government and extend a number of tax credits that were set to expire. CBC leaders initially mounted opposition to the deal, but what initially looked like a power play ended in capitulation.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), the CBC’s then chairman, ultimately voted to pass part of the package in exchange for promises of future action, lending a CBC stamp of approval to a deal that ignored CBC priorities. Then as now, the priority was loyalty to party leadership over the people they are supposed to represent.
Any group whose members comprise a quarter of the Democratic Caucus should have immense influence over the decisions the party makes. It doesn’t make sense for such an influential contingent to play by a set of rules that so often leaves them excluded and empty handed.
Like many other House Democrats, CBC leaders have accepted that consensus is the only way to exercise power, leading them to favor political and legislative strategies that maintain the status quo. But they could leverage their power in other ways.
For instance, CBC could whip votes and withhold collective support from party priorities that don’t adequately address issues facing Black Americans. As narrow as the Democratic majority is, nothing can pass the House without overwhelming CBC support. It’s alien in the Democratic coalition, but this is a tactic the House Freedom Caucus routinely deploys to force Republican leaders to prioritize right-wing interests.
CBC could also wield more of its power by shaming party leaders when they fail to include CBC members in relevant policy discussions or fail to take action on important issues, like voting rights and police reform, which have a disproportionate impact on Black voters.
Finally, when the Caucus weighs in on primary races it should support candidates committed to advancing the interests of Black Americans. But at an absolute minimum it should refrain from endorsing white candidates, like Capuano and Engel, over Black ones, like Pressley and Bowman, who made their commitments to Black and brown constituents central to their campaigns.
Deference and loyalty will never serve the interests of marginalized communities. Instead of waiting to be rewarded for propping up the Democratic establishment, CBC should learn from the group of younger progressives they’re trying to defeat about how to wield power to help people, not the party.