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Down but not out: Black Democrats lose committee and subcommittee chairmanships with House loss

CURTIS R. SIMMONS | 4/12/2011, 5:27 p.m.

As the Democrats in Congress regroup, the Congressional Black Caucus is also trying to figure out what's next.

"I see is as a real loss of Black political power, " said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Lynch..

At the top of the list is what will happen to James Clyburn. The Black South Carolina Democrat has been the majority whip and has held the No. 3 three in the Democratic House majority, but as the Democrats move into the minority, their top leadership positions will drop from three to two positions. Nancy Pelosi surprised many veteran political watchers by deciding to stay on and be the minority leader, and that has left a battle for the No. 2 position between Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, a Maryland representative.

Hoyer is known for being one of the more conservative Democrats--a rare breed--after many were swept out of office by the so-called Republican wave that hit the House last week. Hoyer has been bragging that he has the votes to claim the minority whip position, but Clyburn is saying not so fast. Clyburn wants a full count, and he won't drop out of the race. Hoyer claims to have the Hispanic Congressional Caucus backing him, while Clyburn has most of the Black Congressional Caucus backing him.

For the Black Caucus, which represents more than 20 percent of the total Democratic Caucus, keeping "one of our own" in power has become even more important.

African-Americans will be losing three congressional chairmanships: Judiciary, which John Conyers has overseen; Ways and Means, which Harlem's own Charlie Rangel was in charge of (and the Black community had hoped he would retake after his ethics situation was resolved); and Homeland Security, which Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson oversaw.

For New York alone the loss of the Democratic majority means more than $1 billion that Rangel was able to bring to the state as head of Ways and Means, according to Lynch.

Black Caucus members also had chairmanships over 17 subcommittees as well. Because of the way power works in the House, all of the subcommittee chairmanships will flip to the Republicans, and with only two Blacks in the Republican Caucus--Florida's Allen West and South Carolina's Tim Scott, both freshmen representing white districts--the Black role in the House will be marginalized, says veteran political analyst David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Within the strict confines of the House, this will be a tough situation," he said.

Bositis said that the Democrats knew that they were going to take substantial losses last week. He pointed out that 35 million people who voted for Obama stayed away from the polls, and the result was an older and whiter electorate than the historic election of 2008.

But despite the losses, Bositis thinks that the Democrats can recover and retake the House if the economy picks up. "People didn't like the Republican Party better than the Democrats. It was the battered economy that was the real issue," he said.

Bositis said the Black vote was good for a midterm elections, particularly in New York, Illinois and Ohio. In New York, the Black vote was about 18 percent of the electorate, up from 10 percent in the last governor's race in 2006. In Illinois, Blacks were 20 percent of the total vote, which made a flawed Democratic Senate candidate competitive and led to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's victory, despite getting only 33 percent of the white vote. And in Ohio, the Black vote surged, but was not quite enough to keep Ted Strickland in the governor's mansion, according to Bositis.