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The Congressional Black Caucus' And The Black Electorate's Campaign Finance Dilemma

Yesterday, at a closed door meeting in the Capitol, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) continued their evolving discussion on campaign finance reform and the aftermath of the Florida election. At the meeting, Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) made a preliminary presentation on behalf of a campaign finance task force currently chaired by Black Caucus member Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). While the task force is still studying the issue and has yet to make a recommendation as to how the CBC should address the issue of campaign finance reform, and whether or not the CBC should vote as a bloc on the House version of the McCain-Feingold legislation passed in the Senate; the issue may not only reveal the growing political influence of the 37-member group in a divided US Congress, but may also finally shed light on a taboo subject in the Black community.

For years, many in the Black community have lamented over the belief that Black elected officials are not accountable or responsive to the needs of those who supply the votes that put them in office. And some have gone as far as to say that many Black politicians have sold out to special interest groups and political parties.

But few in the Black community have been willing to openly discuss the reality that Black individuals and interest groups supply so little of the campaign contributions necessary to fuel the Get-Out-the Vote (GOTV) efforts and marketing and promotion needed to wage a successful campaign.

This quiet discussion picked up steam in last year's campaign season, in part, due to the awkward revelation that the NAACP's Get-Out-The-Vote campaign was funded by a single $7 million donation from an anonymous donor. Rumors have widely circulated in political circles that the donation did not come from a Black source.

In addition to that, a review of the individual and institutional campaign contributions made to members of the Congressional Black Caucus reveals that funds flowing into their campaigns came overwhelmingly from sources outside of the Black community.

All of this weighs heavily on the internal discussion taking place among members of the CBC regarding what stand the group should take juxtaposed to the Senate version of campaign finance reform approved last month.

The fact of the matter is that the CBC recognizes that its most dependable source of financial support for its campaigns has come in the form of soft money, either to political parties or political action committees which in turn provide funding for issue advocacy or GOTV efforts which loom large in congressional races.

Caucus members recognize that without the consistent support of the soft money which has fueled the Democratic Party in recent years, they may be competing at a significant financial disadvantage to their Republican opponents and even, possibly, White Democrats who compete against them.

Members of the Black Caucus told that of all of the members of the US Congress they stand to be hurt the most by the Senate version of campaign finance because the legislation not only ends soft money to political parties but also raises the limit on individual contributions from $1,000 to $2,000. Many CBC members who represent some of the poorest voting districts in the United States argue that their constituents could not afford to give the current limit, much less the proposed additional $1,000. They compare their situation to their counterparts in the Republican Party who have excelled at obtaining $1,000 contributions from constituents living in wealthier districts and who are willing and able to provide an additional $1,000 to the candidate of their choice.

So, rather than address the root of the precarious position that Black politicians find themselves in - representing Black constituents while receiving funding from primarily White sources - CBC members are stacking up reasons as to why the status quo must be maintained. And they wisely have decided to link election reform with campaign finance reform. Their strategy is understandable and many of their arguments are rather persuasive. In addition, some members of the Caucus don't see what would be gained by raising the issue of the lack of Black campaign finance in a public and largely political forum before the community itself makes the issue a priority.

Recently we editorialized on the dilemma that the Black electorate finds itself in, and which it has actually helped to maintain and perpetuate by its lack of financial support to the elected officials upon whom it relies. Of course, our position is not that Black politicians can't represent Black people unless they give them money. Our position is largely one of posing a question: why doesn't the Black electorate give what it can spare to Black elected officials and candidates? We gather, in part, that it is for the same reason that Blacks don't support other Black-owned businesses, as they should.

That has to change and in a manner that is largely independent of the actions of the CBC. Black civil society has to determine that it is a priority to free its politicians from undue influence from external interest groups. A suggested step in this direction would be for Black opinion leaders to couple their GOTV efforts with calls to send whatever potential voters can spare, of financial support, to Black candidates and elected officials in office - in campaign and off-campaign years.

We were disappointed that for all of the hard work and success in getting out the vote in the Black community in recent years, led by Rainbow Push, the Nation of Islam, the NAACP, the Urban League and opinion leaders like Tom Joyner, a call for financial support of the CBC was not consistently and vocally included in their efforts. Millions of Blacks were organized and implored to vote but they were not enthusiastically and repeatedly encouraged to send $1, $5, $50, $100 or even $1,000 dollars to the politicians they planned to vote for.

It was a lost opportunity that has to be reclaimed.

While we disagree with the CBC's continued and willful dependence upon the Democratic Party we certainly are sympathetic to some of the reasons they have provided to us as to why the association remains so close.

If the Black electorate is truly to become free, and its vote valued and respected, its politicians have to be free to speak for the Black community's interests, in a manner that does not ensure a politician's electoral demise. Black financial support is a must in this evolving process.

We hope that the CBC's evolving posture in relation to campaign finance reform will be viewed in this light.

Cedric Muhammad

Thursday, May 10, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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