By Lauren Victoria Burke
There are 44 African American members of Congress. Next year, five more are expected to join them, bringing the total to 49. That will represent the highest number of Blacks in Congress in American history. But will it make a difference? Can they leverage their numbers?
Another record-breaking development in the record-breaking 114th Congress will be that all of the new Black members will be women. It is likely that as many as 20 Black women could take the oath of office on Capitol Hill, which is also a record.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that as we’ve seen in statehouses throughout the South, when Democrats become a minority in a legislative chamber, that means less clout for everyone in the party, including African Americans.
Depending on how many House Democrats there are in 2015 (there are now 199), the Black Caucus could become 25 percent of the House Democratic Caucus. As the Tea Party members in the House Republican Caucus have proven over and over, a voting bloc of just 25 members can leverage a great deal of power.
Despite the large percentages and the voting power within the Democratic Caucus that could help drive a Black agenda, the biggest issue that can block Black power is that all but three Black members are likely to serve in the minority in the U.S. House from 2015 and 2016. Unless there is an unexpected shock on November 4, Black Caucus members may have to wait until 2017 to use the full force of their power.
The 1993 class of Black members, who arrived after many minority-majority districts were created, is also set to control at least six committees in the House. Six African American chairmanships would also be yet another historic benchmark. That’s if Democrats can regain control of the House.
But will it happen?
Last week, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) announced a new strategy to make sure that Black voters are aware of the importance of the midterm elections. The plan is to contact more than 3,000 pastors in battleground states and make sure they urge their parishioners to vote. “Freedom Sundays” was launched on September 21 and the goal is to reach more than 1 million voters. More than $250,000 was spent on the launch day alone for the get-out-the-vote effort.
The upcoming midterm elections on November 4 feature what are expected to be very close statewide races in states that feature and high percentage of African American voters. They include Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas. In all of these states and a few others, Black voters literally have the fate of control of the U.S. Senate and a few governor’s offices in their hands. Many primaries over this past year and several elections over the last few cycles have featured races that have come down to only one or two percentage points.
To punctuate the importance of midterm voting, Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director, of the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, announced that her group will send out “voter toolkits” to thousands of community groups and civic organizations ahead of November 4. Arnwine is stressing that November’s election is the first since and slew of changes in several states became law. The efforts at voter protection by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Lawyers Committee are earlier than usual in an off-year election cycle. In past cycles, there has been lots of criticism that get out the vote efforts get underway too late to be effective.
At some point, the changing demographics in the U.S. will have to show up not only on Election Day turnout stats but in the complexion of members of Congress. Though Hispanics are the largest minority group in America at 16 percent, the face of Congress still has not reflected the number. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has 28 members, 16 members less than the Congressional Black Caucus.
A rarely reported fact is that, there could be even more than 49 Black members in Congress, maybe as many as 52. Congressional seats now held by Whites in California, Tennessee and Florida were once recently held by African Americans. To take it another step further, seats now held by Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and Republican Randy Forbes (R-Va.) are in districts that are more than 30 percent African American.
Then there is redistricting games. In states where Republicans packed most of the African Americans in one or two congressional districts, there would more than likely be one or two more Black U.S. Representatives in the state delegations. If the GOP hadn’t run the table on the state level during 2010 redistricting, there would likely be another Black U.S. Representative in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
Next year, as the Congressional Black Caucus grows to the largest number in their history, they will also have to work to adopt a strategy that will solidify their power.
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.