Some families have a mom and a dad or just a grandma or two moms or some variation of adults who take responsibility for making sure the next generation turns out OK. Like Hillary said: It takes hot sauce in a bag, and a village, to raise children.
However, in addition to parents, aunts and uncles, every village has a favorite cousin. They can be a man or a woman, married or single, but they’re usually about eight to 10 years older than you, just old enough to know better but not so old you don’t listen. The favorite cousin’s job is to step in and help with those jobs that mom, dad, aunties and grandpas just can’t do.
It’s the village cousin who takes you to shoot hoops on a crisp fall evening—and all he or she has to say is “So….What’s going on at school?” and you burst into tears about how you’re failing math and are afraid to tell your parents. The village cousin is the one who skips the football game on Thanksgiving to help you braid your hair or fix your car in the driveway. The only family member that can still call you by your baby nicknames in public (Wee-Man, Stink or Doodlebug, for example) and not get a death stare. We all need that cousin. Black politics needs that cousin.
That cousin is Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.
I saw and heard a lot of Fairfax during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference 2018 weekend (where The Root was a media sponsor), and while he’s been in office less than a year, he’s evolved into the favorite cousin of a new generation of African-American candidates across the country. Obama is too busy living his best life right now to answer your phone calls. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are really busy and incredibly selective about who they will come out and campaign for. On the low, quietly and consistently, Justin Fairfax has been doling out advice and doing events around the country with Andrew Gillum in Florida, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, just to name a few.
His influence as a go-to guy for black Democratic candidates grows with every handshake, dad joke and speech he gave over CBC weekend. He’s the real MVP and while you may not hear about it now, he’s going to be a serious power player in the 2020 elections. Speaking of well-deserved awards, I have a few more to hand out after a weekend of late night parties, panels and politics.
1. The Roger Murtaugh, “I’m Too Old for This Shit,” Award goes to...
Jason Johnson. Yes, I’m handing out my first award to myself, but it’s well deserved, just bear with me. I went to CBC for the first time in 2009, where I met The Root Editor-in-Chief Danielle Belton, had dinner in Chinatown with Roland Martin and got to see Barack Obama speak. I go every year, I moderate panels, saw an early Black Panther screening, and when I used to fly in from Cleveland or Atlanta for the conference, I knew I was in for 72 hours of black power networking and parties. This year, I was not feeling it. Now that I am actually an Amtrak Acela-corridor using, H Street-strolling, Beltway-driving, DC metro creature, the CBC didn’t appeal to me. I figured, I see these people all the time and do I really want to hang out in the Marriott Marques lobby until 3 a.m just to catch a glimpse of CBC Chairman and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.)?
At least, that’s how I felt heading into the weekend until I picked up a former student of mine who was flying in from Ohio. He came strolling out of Reagan airport with two gigantic bags, that I swear were filled with cinder blocks because nobody should be carrying clothes that heavy. The man looked like he’d robbed a Kohl’s or had plans on attending New York Fashion Week. When I asked him what all the luggage was for, he was almost breathless with excitement.
“It’s my first Congressional Black Caucus weekend, PJ,” he said. (He calls me PJ instead of Professor Johnson, which I hate, but I’m used to it.)
“I wanna look good! I wanted to make sure I had the right clothes for the whole weekend.”
Somewhere between that statement and our drive to his Airbnb in gentrifying Northeast Washington, D.C., my CBC cynicism disappeared. It’s always somebody’s first Congressional Black Caucus weekend. It’s always somebody’s first time sitting on a panel discussing black female voters or the drug crisis or seeing Lamman Rucker (the shady pastor’s son from Greenleaf) come up the escalator at the Washington Convention Center. My former student was a not-so-subtle reminder of how us D.C. folks may take all this access to black power and culture for granted. (And yes, I did end up hanging out in the Marriott Marques until 3 a.m. but I didn’t see Cedric Richmond).
Everybody. Allow me to explain.
In the past, CBC weekend was a festival of incumbency. The stable 30 plus members of the Congressional Black Caucus would move through the convention hall, shaking hands, put on a few panels and get all dressed up for the Saturday Gala. The panel discussions seemed more focused on keeping what we had than breaking new ground. This year was different. Justin Fairfax, previous awardee for best political play cousin, is just the beginning. African-American candidates are competitive in statewide and federal races all over the country and in places that don’t necessarily have large black voting populations like Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Black female candidates like Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia, are just as likely to be event headliners as Maxine Waters. Ayanna Pressley is running unopposed in Massachusetts and has already become the standard bearer for the unapologetic black left of Generation X.
In year’s past, there were maybe one or two candidates running, usually with no chance, for some seat in Indiana or New Mexico. In 2018, we have more discussions about viable candidates with real chance for success, and what that means for the black community. I learned more about running campaigns in nonmajority minority districts and how the black political consulting class was taking it to the Democratic Party than at any other CBC. The cast of characters in black America’s political theater has expanded and that’s a good thing.
Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, perpetual television guest and rumored 2020 presidential candidate. I will start by saying, the Congressional Black Caucus weekend is open to everyone; I’ve never seen a security guard standing at the front door like Gandalf the Black slamming down a staff made of Newports bellowing “White folks shall not pass.” However you rarely see a white male nonpolitician show up and make the rounds as aggressively at the Congressional Black Caucus Conference as Avenatti did this past weekend. He was everywhere and everybody wanted a picture with him.
He showed up at private events, I saw him getting whisked into the VIP entrance at an after-party and he walked around and shook hands wherever he could. Avenatti’s role as No. 1 television antagonist to Donald Trump has given him a certain amount of credibility with black folks. If Robert Mueller is Donald Trump’s Omar, then Avenatti is his McNulty. A little rough around the edges, always pushing the envelope and surprisingly comfortable around black people for a white guy who draws so heavily upon his ethnic heritage.
Over the weekend there was a bit of a Twitter battle over Darren Sand’s Buzzfeed article about black women being pushed out of some Democratic National Committee positions, Avenatti chimed in, making sure the world saw he was down for the sistas in the Democratic Party. I’m going to assume his ubiquitous presence at CBC weekend means he’s serious about a presidential run, or maybe he was looking for his next big-name client—but I’m pretty sure Jada Fire wasn’t at any of the parties this weekend.
Will CBC be this exciting next year? Who knows? Some of these folks might not get elected in the 2018 midterms, but I will say this: The CBC village looks a lot healthier, stronger and vibrant than I’ve seen in it years. If it continues to transform itself into a launching pad for new black political leadership, black folks might just have something to cheer about in 2020.