By Lauren Victoria Burke
If you were the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), beginning your time tenure when the first Black president of the United States was completing his last two years in office, what would your plan be?
If you were chair at a time when Republicans held a record number of House seats – the most since 1928 – and conditions for Black Americans were getting worse, what would your plan be? If that first Black president on his way out the door wasn’t all that excited about Black agenda items and rarely connects with members of Congress, what would be the plan?
These are the questions that the new Black Caucus chairman, Congressman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, has to confront over the next two years. Presidential politics have already begun to take the stage at the start of 2015 as a lame-duck president notorious for not connecting with members of his own party in Congress begins to announce policy objectives.
Butterfield got off to an aggressive start on January 6 with his first speech as Black Caucus Chairman.
“America is not working for many African Americans and we, as the Congressional Black Caucus, have an obligation to fight harder and smarter in the next Congress to help repair the damage,” he said. The speech included a devastating rundown of current statistics on where African Americans now stand.
“We are fighting generations of indifference on the part of those in power. The statistics tell the story,” Butterfield said. Then he told the audience at the Capitol:
• Twenty-five percent of Black households live below the poverty line, compared to 8 percent for White households;
• One out of three Black children lives in poverty;
• African Americans are twice as likely as Whites to be unemployed;
• African Americans earn $13,000 less per year than their White counterparts;
• The unemployment rate of African Americans has consistently been twice as high as for Whites over the past 50 years and
• For every $100 in wealth of a White household, the Black household only has $6 in wealth.
“What is this if it’s not an emergency?” the new Black Caucus chairman concluded.
In an interview on January 9, with Crewof42.com, Butterfield addressed legislative strategy.
“I think we can negotiate with the Democratic Caucus or the Republican conference or both, right now. I’m not ruling out working out any bi-partisan deals with the majority. John Boehner’s in charge. And he has 246 members,” he said.
The Black Caucus has a block 42 voting Democrats in the House, the most in history. But of the 48 African Americans who will serve in the 114th Congress over the next two years, 45 of them will be serving in the minority Democratic Party. Though there is talk of being more aggressive, legislative wins will require loads of backdoor negotiation. It will also require President Obama to be more aggressive in his negotiations with the GOP before legislation is brought to Congress for consideration. Unfortunately for Democrats, tough negotiation is not something President Obama is known for.
As Chairman Butterfield deals with the known and the unknown, he’s focused on what he can control.
“He’s indicated that he wants to be the conductor of the orchestra and give each person an individual opportunity to shine. He also wants to connect every Black organization across the country with the CBC,” noted Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.)
“A plan is put in place where the previous chair [Rep. Marcia Fudge] will take some responsibility when dealing with the White House. As is widely known, she takes no prisoners, so that will be a help to him and he can spend time dealing with them on legislation and initiatives that they need us to support,” said Rep Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).
Joy Reid, host of The Reid Report, was the master of ceremonies at the Congressional Black Caucus’ ceremonial swearing-in event where Butterfield spoke as CBC chair for the first time.
“I though Congressman Butterfield made it really clear that the CBC is going to be really aggressive about pushing their agenda,” Reid said. “They’re definitely not backing down in the face of the larger Republicans majority. He came out swinging.”
What the New CBC Chair said on January 6 was pointed and reflective.
“In my hometown of Wilson, North Carolina, the railroad tracks divided our town; a town where 23 miles of unpaved streets greeted Black citizens every day. They were relegated to second class citizenship. Our mothers and fathers; grandmothers and fathers; our aunts and uncles worked every day to support the Jim Crow economy,” Butterfield said.
“The CBC was formed in 1971 because its founders understood that Black lives matter. Black boys matter. Black girls matter. The Black family matters. The Black church matters. Black America in its totality matters. In 2015, we are still fighting generations of discrimination. We are fighting generations of indifference on the part of those in power.”
Clever said of the new CBC chairman: “He is methodical and does not tend to act impetuously – whether we planned it or not – he’s the right one for the season.”
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.