During a roundtable with African American journalists, 14 members of the U.S. Senate asked how they could engage the Black community.
Unlike a similar roundtable last year, the 75 minute conversation was more energetic. And a theme emerged: Was the Democratic Party neglecting a big part of its base — Black voters who vote for Democrats over 90% of the time — as Republicans are picking up their efforts to engage African Americans?
As Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) have been vocal in their opposition against mandatory minimums — along with Republican Reps. Tom Massie (R-KY), Raul Labrador (R-ID) — as may Senate Democrats have been quiet. Sen. Paul visited Howard University to address students and a forum on criminal justice reform with Sen. Lee with a room full of liberal criminal justice reform advocates.
In January, only two Democrats voted against two mandatory minimums Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) stuck into the Smarter Sentencing Act during a markup: Sens. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). Five Democrats voted in favor — even though mandatory minimums have been proven to be racially biased and a driver of over incarceration. On May 28, 22 members of the Black Caucus voted in favor of two mandatory minimums in the SAVE Act — as Republican Rep. Massie voted against the bill because the mandatory minimums were included.
“If the Republicans weren’t so crazy we’d be gone,” one member on the roundtable who questioned Senators said after the forum. A lack of a specific and unified strategy for the Black community regarding outreach and GOTV efforts was mentioned as a problem — along with a lack of aggressive and pointed strategy.
Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus is scheduled to speak at the NABJ Convention in Boston next month. The stage is set for three African American Republicans to be in Congress in 2015 as Mia Love and T.W. Shannon look likely to join Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.
During today’s roundtable, journalist Hazel Trice Edney of the TriceEdneyWire, asserted that some Democrats in Congress appear to be afraid to say the word “black” while at the same time speaking on the concerns of the LGBT community and Hispanic concerns.
Edney addressed the central question of what Democrats could do to engage the community.
“You need to rev up the conversation specifically about black people,” she told the Senators. “We may hear it in private but we’re not seeing it on the Senate floor. My mind goes back to Sen. Ted Kennedy… he talked about black people specifically when it was necessary. Well it’s necessary.”
Sen. Tim Kaine acknowledged that the focus around LGBT agenda’s and Hispanics may leave the unintended impression that Blacks have been left out.
“I hadn’t really thought that our strong advocacy on these diversity issues actually could have a little bit of an under-current of ‘we must not be that important because they’re not talking about us the same way. I probably should have realized that. It’s a helpful thing for us to hear,” the former Governor of Virginia said.
The results of gridlock in Congress and Black leaders primarily interested in being unquestioningly supportive of the Obama Administration — rather than pushing a federal policy agenda that improves outcomes for African Americans — has clearly taken its toll. Federal policy results and improved outcomes on policy that disproportionately affects Blacks are hard to find. A formal “black agenda” was presented to the President in February 2014 — in year five of his presidency.
Meanwhile, other minority advocates for the LGBT and Hispanic lobby have pressed hard on their agenda items on the grassroots level and in the halls of the Capitol. The results have been obvious as Democratic members of Congress and President Obama have been vocal on supporting the Dream Act, ENDA, immigration reform, and actively against DOMA.
Within the confines of what can be affected by federal power, not much has happened for the Black community after the passage of the health care reform bill. President Obama and Senate Democrats allowed the Bush tax cuts to become permanent — instead of allowing them to expire in Dec. 2010 and Jan. 2013 — a tax break bonanza for the 1%. But the expense of $4 trillion in tax breaks prompted cuts to Head Start, community block grants, and education. This added to President Obama’s decision to end earmarks hurt black communities.
The Obama Administration eliminated Summer Pell Grants and changed the criteria for Parent PLUS loans. That 2011 decision cost HBCUs millions and interrupted the education of thousands of African American college students. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan later apologized. Hampton President Bill Harvey, who chairs the White House HBCU initiative, called the current situation for HBCU’s the worst he’s seen in 35 years.
In March, a Wall Street Journal story revealed that Black borrowers received only 1.7% of the $23.09 billion in total SBA loans. In April, President Obama’s budget included a $236 million increase in spending on the Bureau of Prisons even while he introduced My Brother’s Keeper, a philanthropic initiative to assist young Black males.
Majority Leader Reid presented an overview of policy Democrats are focused on at the start of the conversation. Hours later, he met with the President in the Oval Office with other congressional leaders.
Attending the roundtable were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Chuck Schumer (D-NY).