A New Age for the Black Caucus
A new young staff, helmed by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, hopes to give it fresh relevance.
Among those legislative accomplishments under Lee were reducing the crack and powder-cocaine sentencing disparity, relieving Haiti's debt to the United States, appropriating $1.2 billion for the long-stalled black farmers' discrimination suit, securing higher-education tax credits for students, and a series of provisions in the Affordable Care Act that added $11 billion for community health centers and $36 billion for Pell Grants.
"A lot of times what the press covers is not going to be the details of policy," said Burke, who started her blog as a response to news reports on the CBC that focused only on the anger, controversy or disagreements of individual members. "Emanuel Cleaver and Stephanie Young have been quite different from past CBC leaders who didn't want to talk to the press. They're pumping up their accomplishments and information."
As Burke noted, the boost in Cleaver's media presence, particularly on cable news and the Sunday-morning shows, has been so stark that in his first 60 days, he'd made more national TV and radio appearances than the last three chairs combined. It's been a deliberate change. "My goal coming into this was to ensure that a consistent CBC voice was heard -- whether that be through a position statement, interview or blog -- on every major American issue," said Young.
The team has further kept up with technology by revamping its website to be more user-friendly, frequently updating its Facebook page and joining Twitter. "We also have to remember that African Americans are more likely to find their news online, and use Twitter at a higher rate," said Young. "All these things are very important to reaching our constituents, and moving forward, that's just the way we had to go."
The Next Steps
Despite the changes that the team has brought about over the past nine months, its members deflect attention from the fact that they're all under the age of 35, working for an organization with an average age of 62. "Instead of focusing on the age divide, we really soak up the knowledge and wisdom that comes from our mentors in the caucus," said Rye, also pointing out that younger voices, such as 36-year-old Indiana Rep. Andre Carson and 46-year-old New York Rep. Yvette Clarke, are represented, too.
Furthermore, having a caucus with some of the House's most senior members can be a good thing in Congress. "If you look at the legislation that passed when Democrats had the majority, a lot of it was not the result of a huge push by 40 CBC members but by one savvy member who was a pain in the neck," said Burke. "That member is often a senior member.
"When people complain about having a bunch of older people around, they don't understand that the way to get power around here is through seniority," she continues. "Members like Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters and Ed Towns, who are in their 70s and 80s, know how to get something through. That becomes huge."
That said, the young CBC staff concur that their goal is not to push through new ideological thinking or overhaul membership. "We've given the CBC a stronger brand and ensured that people of my generation know about what we're doing," said Rye, who stated that the group's next big initiative will involve an awareness campaign on voter protection and newly passed voter-ID laws nationwide.
"We've also strengthened the relationship across the board," she added, "with House and Senate leadership and the Obama administration, to improve the productivity of the CBC and improve our reach to the people who matter to us."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.