Unbeknownst to the vast majority of folks, there are more than 10,000 black elected officials nationwide on the local, state and federal levels. Even less known is the fact that 700 of them are state legislators: state representatives, delegates and state senators, many congregating in state capitals in nearly all the 50 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and the pretty much all-black U.S. Virgin Islands.
What is virtually unknown is that those legislators meet annually as the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
Even as the NBCSL just wrapped up its 40th Annual Legislative Conference in New Orleans on Dec. 3, it was done with little fanfare, no public press releases and just a few rushed tweets by the end of the conference. Beyond a one-man presence from The Root, there was no sign of any other media outlets.
Adding to its mystique is that the organization found itself still suffering from a monthslong malware-corrupted website, which outgoing NBCSL chairwoman and Maryland state Sen. Catherine Pugh (soon to be Baltimore’s next mayor) claimed was “repeatedly hacked” when asked by miffed NBCSL members.
As bad as that may look, however, don’t sleep on the NBCSL. With those numbers, none of the above eliminates the NBCSL’s truly massive importance as an august national body of black political power. Even if we can’t link to its website at the moment, it still manages to somehow connect and coordinate these 700 legislators, occasionally corralling crucial policy coordination on a wide range of issues when needed.
Black state legislators are like a first line of defense standing between national sanity and the global tempest that is Donald Trump, plus a fully decked GOP Congress. Need to change police-conduct standards? Call your local black state rep or senator because that's in their wheelhouse. When Trump’s proposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan rolls out and trickles to states, black state officials will be key on oversight. And issues like education reform, charter schools and vouchers can’t really move without black state legislators' eyes on them.
Full of enthusiasm, newly elected incoming Chairman and Indiana state Rep. Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) seems intent on preparing the NBCSL for an expectedly unforgiving social and political age with Trump. Porter talked tirelessly of the need to “push hard” and “remain relevant,” showing an awareness that if the NBCSL isn't publicly relevant, desperate black communities looking for a path forward won’t find much. “We have to understand what we face in terms of the possible intended and unintended consequences,” he mused. Black state legislators convened in NOLA full of uncertainty, but anxiously stood firm in being willing to rise to the occasion.
This year’s conference “could not have happened at a better time for the organization,” said Louisiana Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge), his district still struggling in the aftershocks of historic summer flooding. “The takeaway from this is we must not grow weary in well doing. We recognize all politics is local, and the battle will begin in state legislative houses across this nation with redistricting.”
With the 2020 census on the horizon, redistricting was, perhaps, the most discussed topic of those on the NBCSL agenda. Publicly, it’s not the sexiest issue on the block; nor will it grab a headline the same way a police shooting does. Yet black state legislators are nervously on the front line of it, most expressing frustration that the census woefully undercounts the national black population and that, unfortunately, many black constituents don’t help the situation by avoiding it. The significance of redistricting and racial gerrymandering cannot be underestimated: It plays a central role in structurally consolidating Republican political power to a gargantuan and potentially tyrannical degree.
A deliberately sophisticated numbers game, the next national census will have enormous long-term impact—it can either expand black political and economic clout … or it can wipe it out. Simply put: Fewer black people being counted in the census means even less ability to do anything about what troubles us. “It’s critical we have these numbers to fight off the type of onslaught we’re going to face in the next few years,” Pugh argued.
“We have to be in the game of understanding redistricting,” added Porter. “Those who have the influence, who have the power, draw the maps to benefit them.”
NBCSL Vice Chairwoman and South Carolina state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg) offered a more ominous assessment. “We are almost too late when you think about 2020,” said Cobb-Hunter. “A lot of the myths and misconceptions among our people surrounding the census suggests we have a lot of work to do.”
Others, like New Jersey state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), argued that’s why black elected officials must press aggressively for more collaboration among the state-, local- and federal-level groups, like NBCSL, the Congressional Black Caucus, the African American Mayors Association and the National Black Caucus of Locally Elected Officials. “This day and age, we can’t be playing around,” said Rice.
“We have to acknowledge the need to coordinate on a number of issues, like jobs, crime, education, and know what the other is doing,” argued Rice, who describes how a micro version of that has been achieved in the Garden State. “These different groups should be coming together at least once annually and sharing ideas and intelligence on a formal basis. I’m not interested in folks politics, but I am interested in finding common ground on policy.”
Tennessee state Rep. Harold Love (D-Nashville) agreed. “It’s important to have a gathering like this because there may be some model legislation done in Arizona or North Carolina that I don’t know about in Tennessee,” Love said. “For example, last year I remember learning about legislation from North Carolina dealing with the automatic expungement of arrest records if someone was arrested but found not to have committed the crime.
“And as NBCSL, we might find more emphasis placed on what we do, since the federal government might be gridlocked," he continued. “Everything that doesn’t pass on the federal government level can be passed on the state level.”
One can even make the argument that NBCSL has more bite than the better-known Congressional Black Caucus. CBC members themselves, the majority hailing from the state legislator space, might be privately inclined to admit this. The CBC brands better, for sure. But state legislative work is sweaty, in-the-trenches grunt work (a trip to Congress, in comparison, is a perks-riddled retirement package). It’s where most policy work is actually done, for better or for worse, quietly and mostly headline free, yet full of national ramifications. Washington, D.C., even with a one-party federal government starting in January, may get very little done as policymakers on the left and right are mired in petty partisan fights.
Many acknowledged that fact in New Orleans last week, full of sighs, but battle-ready for the prospect that a lot of heavy policy lifting will fall on them.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.