Is The Black Caucus Ready To Ride The Progressive Wave?

The Congressional Black Caucus is eliciting criticism for siding with Rep. Eliot Engel, a white incumbent, against Black primary challenger Jamaal Bowman.
Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman addresses supporters on Tuesday night. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC backed his opponent, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).  

It should be the Congressional Black Caucus’s biggest moment.

Multiple CBC members being vetted as a potential vice presidential pick. A national uprising over systemic racism in policing that could finally address core issues in Black communities. And a host of Black progressives winning Democratic nominations that will almost certainly sweep them into office.

But with the CBC either not endorsing some of those liberal Black candidates who won Tuesday night — or outright opposing them — many activists are wondering if the CBC is progressive enough to lead this movement.

“If it wasn’t clear before tonight, I hope it is now. The CBC is disconnected from middle and lower black America,” progressive Black activist Danny D. Glover tweeted Tuesday night after the election results.

“Do not listen to them,” he added.

Glover, who ran the outreach program for historically black colleges and universities for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, told HuffPost on Wednesday that the CBC’s reluctance to endorse Black candidates with left-wing credentials ― candidates who appear to have won their Democratic nominations Tuesday ― speaks to a “lack of connection” to working-class voters.

“The fact that they’re willing to stake their entire reputation and legacy on folks that exist outside of the mission of the Congressional Black Caucus says a lot about the leadership,” Glover said, referring to the CBC’s endorsement of 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) over Black middle school principal Jamaal Bowman.

Maurice Weeks, the co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, also said the Engel endorsement over Bowman spoke to “a larger crisis for the CBC in this moment, where it’s clear they’re not actually representative of the progressive Black agenda in America.”

“Folks like Bowman are the face of that agenda,” Weeks said.

Bowman ultimately defeated Engel, the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, and a number of liberal activists noticed that the CBC threw its weight behind Engel, who is white, over, say, helping Black challengers in open races, like Mondaire Jones in a nearby district.

The CBC has spent more to protect Eliot Engel against a Black challenger than they’ve done to get a Black man across the finish line. Sean McElwee, co-founder, Data for Progress

“The CBC has spent more to protect Eliot Engel against a Black challenger than they’ve done to get a Black man across the finish line,” activist Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, noted to HuffPost last Friday.

A spokesperson for the CBC PAC did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

CBC PAC Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) defended the Engel endorsement to Politico, citing Engel’s role in advocating against police brutality. “You judge a person based upon the merit of their service,” he said. “So if you earn it, that’s who we support.”

Jones, who was the clear front-runner in a race to succeed retiring Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), didn’t get the CBC’s endorsement until Saturday, three days before the primary — and only after HuffPost began asking CBC leaders why the group hadn’t endorsed Jones. “They endorsed Mondaire when it didn’t matter,” a senior aide to a progressive House member said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

Meeks told HuffPost last week that “generally” the CBC “stays out of it” if there are multiple Black candidates in an open-seat race. In the Jones race, among a field of seven candidates, there was another Black challenger, Asha Castleberry-Hernandez. But while Jones was polling at 25%, Castleberry-Hernandez was polling at 3% ― and she had raised a fraction of the money that Jones had. Meanwhile, there were two other white candidates polling in the mid-teens.

And if the CBC PAC generally stays out of it when there is more than one viable Black candidate, that wasn’t the standard they held in a different New York City race. 

In the South Bronx, Afro-Latino progressive Ritchie Torres beat out another crowded primary field to represent one of the most Democratic districts in the country. Yet he wasn’t the one who got the CBC’s endorsement. That went to New York Assemblyman Michael Blake, despite Torres’s apparently greater electoral viability.

Many activists think the CBC preferred Blake, the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, because of his ties to the New York Democratic political machine, whereas Torres ― who, like Jones, is gay ― touted himself as the most electable progressive option. (Blake also prided himself on being a liberal candidate, running on an affordable-housing platform and amplifying criticism of Torres for watering down a police reform bill while on the City Council.)

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, has defended the decision to endorse Rep. Eliot Engel's reelection.

Regardless, in a number of Democratic primaries Tuesday ― the first major elections since Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in late May ― Black insurgents cleaned up. 

Although the abundance of votes cast via absentee ballots has postponed the official results, the score was clearly in progressives’ favor. Bowman holds a lead over Engel widely viewed as insurmountable. Jones won his nomination. Torres, too. And Charles Booker is currently ahead of well-funded ― and longtime favorite ― U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath in Kentucky. 

In all of those cases, electing a new generation of liberal leaders went hand in hand with a new generation of Black candidates. And with other new, stalwart progressives in the CBC ― like Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) ― combined with more experienced liberal lawmakers like Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the caucus could be a progressive force in the House in years to come.

In fact, the CBC is already flexing its muscle. On Thursday, the House passed a sweeping police reform bill that was largely composed by members of the CBC.

But activists and progressive aides worry that some of the old trappings of the caucus ― taking corporate money, being friendly with Wall Street and lobbyists, and defending institutionalist norms, like seniority and incumbency ― could threaten its ability to be a progressive force. And the decision to endorse Engel over Bowman typifies that concern.

“Endorsing Engel over Bowman is absurd,” the senior progressive House aide told HuffPost. “They should have been aware of the dynamics of that race. More sophisticated actors would have stayed out.”

Part of the issue is that, despite a desire for change from a number of members in the CBC, many are party loyalists. The CBC has had success in supporting a tenure system in Congress, which rewards the members who can stick around the longest with powerful committee chair positions. Many CBC members sit in safe Democratic districts, and don’t like the idea of primary challenges. In fact, the CBC has a policy of supporting incumbents. 

In 2018, the CBC endorsed then-Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who went on to be unseated by Pressley, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. And barring a massive upset, Bowman will enter Congress and the CBC next year after the organization opposed his candidacy.

But it’s not just the CBC supporting incumbents over Black candidates. The CBC has endorsed ― or chosen not to endorse anyone ― in a number of curious races. 

For instance, the CBC hasn’t endorsed Will Cunningham, a former aide to CBC lion Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who died last year. 

Cunningham is running to unseat Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democrat turned Republican in South New Jersey. And while Cunningham ― who, like Jones and Torres, is also gay ― has not generated nearly the money or enthusiasm of other Black insurgents, a campaign adviser argued that a CBC endorsement could change that. 

“This is the kind of race that the CBC should be pushing,” Cunningham adviser Kaushal Thakkar told HuffPost. 

Will Cunningham, an attorney and former House aide, is competing for a South New Jersey congressional seat. He doesn't yet have the Congressional Black Caucus PAC's endorsement.

The CBC’s non-endorsements are especially glaring alongside the list of candidates they have chosen to back. In addition to standing by Engel, the caucus endorsed the reelection of Josh Gottheimer, a white, centrist Democrat facing a progressive challenge July 7 in a suburban New Jersey swing seat. Gottheimer leads a bloc of moderate Democrats and Republicans that prevented the Democratic-controlled House from placing tougher humanitarian conditions on a border funding bill in July. Gottheimer’s challenger, Arati Kreibich, is a neuroscientist who immigrated to the U.S. from India as a child. 

Questions remain about how the CBC PAC actually decides its endorsements. The PAC told The Intercept in February 2016 that it endorsed Hillary Clinton for president based on a vote conducted by its board of directors. At the time, the 20-person board included 11 lobbyists and seven members of Congress.  

The CBC PAC’s board now includes 11 members of Congress. But it still contains many corporate lobbyists, including Cherie Wilson, a General Motors lobbyist; Daron Watts, who recently represented two pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco vape manufacturer Juul; William Kirk, who last year lobbied for a Michigan-based electric utility, an Atlanta-based real estate development firm and Starbucks; and former Rep. Al Wynn of Maryland, whose clients in 2019 included British American Tobacco and coal company Peabody Energy. (Wynn entered the lobbying world after losing to progressive primary challenger Donna Edwards in 2008.)  

But that is not to say the CBC simply bows to the whims of corporate lobbyists, nor does it mean the caucus is monolithic. The group includes members of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, including Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), as well as storied progressives such as Lee, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.). And Pressley and Omar also offer a left-wing perspective as part of a young vanguard that has sometimes clashed with Democratic leadership.

It really does push back on this notion that progressive challengers are just white hipsters. Maurice Weeks, Action Center for Race and the Economy

But, as a group, the CBC has been especially hostile toward the activist left’s strategy of targeting incumbents. 

Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has only ever run two candidates against CBC members. The organization supported nurse Cori Bush’s unsuccessful run against Rep. Lacy Clay in Missouri in 2018, and attorney Morgan Harper’s losing bid to unseat Rep. Joyce Beatty in Ohio this cycle. (Bush is running a second time against Clay in Missouri’s Aug. 4 primary.)

The races were enough to prompt CBC to lambaste Justice Democrats in the press. Last July, Meeks, the CBC PAC chairman, implied that the progressive political action committee might be motivated by a bias against Black members of Congress. Clay compared the outfit to the “Russian trolls of 2016.”

For some Black progressives, Bowman’s victory, in particular, provides an opportunity to take some of the air out of the idea that the CBC is under attack from a predominantly white group of progressive activists.

In the words of Weeks, who organizes low-income communities of color behind progressive economic policies, Bowman exudes “a working-class work ethic and is supported by this very, very diverse community.”

“It really does push back on this notion that progressive challengers are just white hipsters,” Weeks said. 

Progressives might soon get their wish. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) told Politico that it was time for the CBC to take a closer look at its policy of supporting incumbent Democratic allies, particularly when the primary challenger is Black. “Black candidates are running and fighting and qualified to run for office,” she said.

Glover called Bowman’s win a “reckoning” for the CBC. He predicted that if CBC members didn’t embrace the more ambitious calls for reform issued by the younger Black protesters taking the streets over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, individual CBC members would be run out of office with primary challenges.

“This inflection point we have does not deal with only white people. This inflection point also speaks directly to the establishment of both Blacks and whites,” he said. “Gone are the days of them just giving us lip service.”