Black Caucus faces upheaval as progressive pressure rises

Black Caucus faces upheaval as progressive pressure rises

Progressive insurgent Jamaal Bowman hopped on a Congressional Black Caucus call in late July to introduce himself to the group.

It could have been awkward. Bowman, who is Black, had recently knocked out Rep. Eliot Engel, a white incumbent backed prominently by the CBC, in a heated New York Democratic primary. But they simply exchanged pleasantries on the call and the CBC moved on to the business of the week.

The next day though, Bowman outraged some members in the Black Caucus after he endorsed another Black progressive challenger — Cori Bush — against longtime Rep. Lacy Clay, a CBC member whose father had been a co-founder of the storied group.

Bowman — along with Bush, who soon triumphed over Clay for the Missouri seat his family has held for decades — represents a new class of Democrats eager to upend deep-rooted dynamics in Congress before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.

And with several Black progressives expected to win in November, pressure will rise on the CBC to embrace the leftward swing of its newest additions and their challenge to the broader party establishment. Longtime members have already started to privately fret over just how the CBC will be forced to evolve in the next Congress and how that will shape a group that has long been a central power in House politics.

“The thing about the Black Caucus is that it will adapt,” Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a senior member of the CBC, said in an interview, as he dismissed concerns. “We reflect America. We welcome change, you got to adapt. We’ll continue to do that — to change when it’s necessary.”

The CBC has already undergone seismic changes over the past year, reeling from the deaths of icons John Lewis and Elijah Cummings. And with Clay voted out, the institutional knowledge of the CBC will be further depleted next Congress.

Several members said they are anxious to see what’s next. Seniority and deference to party elders, bedrock values of the 50-year-old caucus, have started to slowly erode. And primary challenges, currently taken as a personal affront to any incumbent, may soon become the norm.

In an interview, Bowman said progressives like himself and Bush are emboldened to take their fight to Congress — including within the CBC if necessary — as the nation faces overlapping crises amid a pandemic, economic devastation and police killings of unarmed Black people.

“The organizing has already been happening. It’s been happening in the streets across this country. That’s why Cori was able to win her election. That organizing is going to continue when we get to Congress,” Bowman said. “When you see Cori’s victory in Missouri, it’s a clear indication that people are demanding something different. … It’s a cry for change, it’s a cry for systemic change. It’s very exciting, and that’s not going away.”

Not everyone is seriously concerned about the prospect of change. CBC staffers say the group is not a monolith — with members from downtown Los Angeles to rural upstate New York — and that any new voices will only amplify the caucus’ influence in Congress. And a senior aide close to the caucus echoed the thoughts of younger members in the group, saying it’s probably time for the CBC to “shake the dust off.”

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