In a competitive primary season, the question of endorsements is always a hot topic. But this year, the jockeying for support has reached its zenith with the tightly contested race for the Democratic nominee threatening to go all the way to the Democratic National Convention and being potentially decided by "superdelegates," a pool of elected officials, party officials and political insiders. These super-delegates, who make up 20 percent of votes cast for the nomination, may overturn the decision made by voters in polls across the country.
Elected officials who have endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, with districts supporting Obama, face a tough choice. And the stakes are highest for the black elected officials of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). With deep ties to the Clintons and offering endorsements far ahead of schedule, many black members are now faced with overwhelming majorities in their districts who support Barack Obama.
The question on many minds is, how will these superdelegates vote if the primary vote contradicts their own preference?
The choice should be clear: black elected officials must act as superdelegates to safeguard the will of voters.
This primary season has seen overwhelming turn out across the nation — and black Americans, concentrated in districts represented by the CBC, have spoken with a clear and decisive voice. They want Obama. According to the Washington Post, Obama has "swamped" Clinton among black voters: "Obama now has such a lock on the loyalties of African Americans – 84 percent of the black vote in Alabama, 87 percent in Georgia, 84 percent in Maryland, and on and on — that the black vote is no longer contestable."
Though all elected officials who are superdelegates face a decision come August, this choice is particularly important for CBC members. There is a clear will among voters in their districts that goes against the interests of senior members of black America's political establishment, including Florida Reps. Kendrick Meek, Alcee Hastings and Corinne Brown; California Reps. Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, and Laura Richardson; Missouri's Rep. Emanuel Cleaver; Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones; New York Reps. Gregory Meeks, Yvette Clarke, and Edolphus Towns; Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee; and Virgin Islands Del. Donna Christensen.
All are Democrats. All refuse to make clear how they will vote as super delegates, with many indicating they will "vote their conscience" and stick with Clinton against the clear will of voters.
This argument is wrong. Giving the party elite power to choose against the will of everyday Americans who participate in a democratic process is bad for business, particularly when it comes time for a general election. For the CBC, this is particularly noteworthy: the existence of the caucus was predicated on the Voting Rights Act of 1964, protecting black America's voice at the polls. The CBC has been the most stalwart defender of that right, most recently in 2000 and 2004, shining a light on rampant voter suppression and intimidation in the two presidential elections to ensure that black votes were counted.
But now, when old allegiances are challenged, they threaten to undermine the electoral power of their constituents and the general electorate, with impunity.
To be clear, while black America has spoken definitively, there is a clear split among black elected officials. Reps. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Eleanor Holmes Norton have made strong statements encouraging their colleagues to let the people's voice carry and Reps. John Conyers, chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and David Scott have actively lobbied other black delegates to put aside their preferences and listen to the overwhelming chorus rising out of their districts.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus should, indeed, be able to support, and even endorse, whomever they please. But when it comes time to cast their ballot as a superdelegate they must use that power to amplify, not silence the voters in their districts and across the country. Many black electeds, closely tied to the political apparatus of both Clintons, have been shocked by the turn this election has taken. But they fail to realize that the question being raised across the country is not about which candidate they support, but to whom they are accountable. A ColorOfChange.org member writing to CBC members on this issue perhaps said it best:
Please remember that your job as a Congressperson depends on your respect and acknowledgement of your constituency. A vote against our chosen candidate will surely become a vote against your re-election.
Endorse who you want, the logic goes, but cast your vote with the people who put you in office.
That letter was sent along with more than 20,000 others to the CBC this week from voters in each of their districts asking the members to honor their votes and make clear they will stand with voters as a superdelegate. It's a simple ask, but it's been aggressively rejected by representatives stumping hard for Senator Clinton. In response to a question on CNN last week about how she would vote should her district go for Obama in the March 4 primary, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas made a passionate plea in support of Clinton adding, "the throngs of people voting one way or another should not impact [my decision as a superdelegate]". It's an inappropriate response for an official who serves at the will at the people, and particularly one whose official power is predicated upon protecting the voice of black people at the polls.
In this moment, with black America nearly unified on an issue of national importance, the CBC and its members must act boldly and speak in unison. Allegiances and friendships are a part of politics, but with the stakes this high, choosing politics over a democratic process will push people out of the party, discourage the many new voters who have come to the polls in this election and undermine the CBC's credibility on voting rights. Taking a position to stand with voters, not against them will take real political courage; we can't afford to settle for anything less.