At the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 41st Annual Legislative Conference freshman CBC member U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama hosted a session on voting trends that was more than just a little bit lively.
The issue of minority voting trends and whether political organizing should be done based on community groups, pure policy or racial connections was discussed in depth. With CNN’s Roland Martin as the moderator, the session was freewheeling, lively and often direct.
“Politics and political power are about two things. It’s about constituency and it’s about money. We (blacks) don’t have political power as we should…. We will often bring the vote to bear, but we don’t bring money,” said Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies. “I’ve been in Washington in a long time now…. If you’re not bringing money to bear in that conversation, you’re not having a conversation.”
State Rep. Stacey Abrams of Georgia emphasized how “connecting the dots” on issues for people and focusing on what motivates people to become politically active is key. “People vote when they know it can change things. They will not vote if they think change won’t happen,” Abrams said.
Regarding Georgia’s particularly complex laws on expunging the records of ex-felons, Abrams offered an example of how to “connect dots.” “If you explain to people why their son can’t get a job because they voted for this person,” then voter outreach is far more effective, she said.
An audience member stood up and urged everyone to organize politically around progressive issues rather than on race. Martin brought strong moderating skills into play by reminding the audience that political organizing happens around where we socialize (fraternities, clubs, workplaces, etc.) and go to church, rather than as a pure function of policy. “How you live determines how you organize…. Our lives are typically broken down by either race or gender, and you organize where your numbers are,” Martin said.
No discussion on contemporary American politics could go without mention of the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama.
One man stood up and strongly defended the president and criticized members of the Congressional Black Caucus who questioned the President’s strategy. Moderator Martin strongly resisted the notion that being critical of the president was off limits for black public officials. “Blacks voted 95 percent for this president, and we should expect a return on the investment,” Martin said.
When the audience member pushed his point further, Martin reminded all of the episode in late 2009 when the 10 black caucus members on the House Financial Services Committee went up against the Obama administration regarding $40 billion they wanted in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The 10 caucus members withheld their votes as they faced off against the Obama administration and pushed for access to capital for minority-owned banks and for consumer protections. Martin asked the audience member if he’d rather have the $40 billion or no one criticizing President Obama.
The panel also included Spencer Overton, a Georgetown University law professor, and Will Crossley, director of voter protection for the Democratic National Committee.