On Tuesday, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) lost her historic bid to become only the second black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate. While there will be many takes on the implications of the election, as important as any is the inadvertent impact the campaign had in uncovering the unfortunate influence of corporate power over the black political establishment in Congress, specifically the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee.
When my organization, ColorOfChange.org, the country’s largest online civil rights organization, launched a campaign demanding that the CBC PAC remake its board and cut ties with funders from companies that benefit from the suffering of black communities, it was not about Donna Edwards at all, really; it was about a political action committee, wholly unaccountable to black people, taking money and direction from problematic lobbyists, all the while claiming to speak on our behalf.
Still, the story of how Donna Edwards, a CBC member with overwhelming support from black voters, was blocked from the endorsement of the CBC PAC by a former political rival, congressman-turned-lobbyist Al Wynn, brings into focus the dangers facing black people because of the influence of money in politics. Consider the ways that the CBC PAC maintains that status quo while claiming to represent the interests of black people:
1. Industries that benefit from the worst outcomes of America’s racial inequality are able to spend millions to manipulate the political process, and the CBC PAC gives them even more access. As a CBC PAC board member, Al Wynn has cycled through clients including private-prison-and-detention giant G4S, menthol-cigarette-makers and a company with dubious ties to the Sudanese regime.
Unfortunately, he is not the only example. Companies and industries with clearly conservative agendas and business models that exploit the worst outcomes for black people are deeply connected to or invested in the CBC PAC. They fight minimum wage increases, produce and aggressively market dangerous products to black communities, and advocate for private prison companies that have made millions through mass incarceration.
2. The reliance of the CBC PAC board on corporate money puts CBC members in the position of defending corporate money in politics as well as the very companies that are the most harmful to black people. CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) actually defended Wynn by referencing his role in protecting menthol-cigarette-makers as advocacy for black people, telling Politic365.com, “I think they bring a perspective. Not only the ability to contribute to our political work, but also they bring an issue perspective. Like menthol cigarettes. I support, for example, the idea that taking menthol off the market is not the solution to the problem. A lot of African Americans smoke menthol … so we need their perspective,” referring to Wynn’s successful efforts on behalf of tobacco companies.
3. Worst of all, the influence of corporate power over the CBC PAC provides a vehicle to leverage the credibility of the Black Caucus in ways that are contrary to the desires of black communities. Despite being ousted by black voters in Maryland in favor of Edwards eight years ago and public criticism of his lobbying activity, Al Wynn has remained on the CBC PAC board and obviously wields enough power to drive decisions with major implications for black politics in directions that don’t align with most black voters.
It’s this kind of “civil rights washing”—laundering dangerous policies by drenching them in the hard-earned moral authority of the Congressional Black Caucus—that leaves me with a bad aftertaste. It’s toxic water. And it’s toxic to the interests of black people.