A New Age for the Black Caucus

A new young staff, helmed by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, hopes to give it fresh relevance.

Angela T. Rye; Latrice Powell; E. Brandon Garrett; Stephanie L. Young (Courtesy of CBC)

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Despite being in a House of Representatives with an overwhelming Republican majority, the mostly Democratic caucus (the exception being Florida Rep. Allen West) has remained determined to press its agenda. “Our focus for this Congress is job creation and economic development,” Garrett, 33, the CBC’s first-ever policy director — charged with producing a steady arsenal of policy papers, recommendations and strategies — told The Root. “We started the year out with a budget commission, in which we had 10 of the top African-American economists advise on a budget that would cut federal spending while, at the same time, protecting the vulnerable population.”

Garrett, who previously served as the legislative director for Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, said that the caucus has taken a multifaceted approach to the economy. This year the CBC introduced 40 pieces of jobs legislation between its members. They pushed those ideas in two meetings with President Barack Obama (compared with just one sit-down with him during his first two years in office), in addition to a session with White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Cleaver’s one-on-one with Vice President Joe Biden.

The caucus made headlines this summer when it embarked on a five-city For the People Jobs Initiative, hosting job fairs with more than 200 hiring companies, as well as town hall meetings that challenged the Obama administration to do more about black unemployment.

“The fact that 30,000 people showed up blew everyone’s minds,” said Young, a former deputy press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Nobody was talking about African-American unemployment before that, except to say that African Americans are lazy and don’t want to work. The Congressional Black Caucus went into the community and showed America thousands of people lined up with their children, drinking water to keep from passing out in the heat, wanting to do what was necessary to provide for their families.”

After the jobs tour, for which the CBC set a goal of hiring 10,000 people (it said that it is currently working with participating companies to compile the exact number), it released a report of policy recommendations (pdf) for the president — many of which were included in the $447 billion jobs bill that he unveiled this month.

“If you look at every page of the president’s American Jobs Act, you will see that we have a consistent imprint throughout that bill,” said Rye, who previously worked as senior adviser and counsel to the House Committee on Homeland Security. “From the infrastructure bank to summer jobs for youth, and targeted provisions for low-income people and the chronically unemployed, our recommendations are there.”

Telling the CBC Story

Another major push for the CBC staff has been getting their message out, a tactic that the caucus hasn’t always successfully employed. “In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, when Barbara Lee was the chair of the CBC, she had a golden-opportunity moment to get what they want done,” Lauren Victoria Burke, who exhaustively covers the caucus on her blog Crew of 42, told The Root. “It just so happens that they did get things done in those first two years, but people don’t know about them.”