There was troubling news from Washington last week that should probably be put into perspective. The rift is not due to the usual Democrats vs. Republicans hostility, or a fight between rival government agencies. This one is internal and especially troubling for black folks.
The Congressional Black Caucus, the all-Democrat coalition of African-American lawmakers, is undergoing somewhat of a crisis of conscience these days, with members now going after each other in public, much to the delight of Republicans.
At its core, the issue is over the Dodd-Frank Act, the set of banking regulations set forth following the 2008 financial collapse. Wall Street, with the help of Republicans, would like to unravel the legislation, allowing banks and financial institutions to return to the bad old days of the freewheeling excesses that nearly bankrupted the country.
Expectedly, the anti-regulation crowd joined the fray, and even a pro-business group calling themselves the New Democrats has lent their support to gutting Dodd-Frank. Less expectedly, though, has been the support of several members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Naturally, other caucus members were horrified, considering the fact that their constituents not only bore the brunt of the financial collapse – many of them still looking for work or trying to save their homes from foreclosure – but in many cases were blamed for the collapse itself. If you’ll recall, Minnesota’s resident wingnut Michelle Bachmann and other members of her party as much as accused black folk of causing the financial meltdown by taking those high-risk mortgages.
Congressional Black Caucus members Gwen Moore, Gregory Meeks, David Scott, Lacy Clay and Terri Sewell have linked arms with their opponents across the aisle, pushing for measures that would undermine Dodd-Frank’s rules on financial derivatives, the contracts at the heart of the 2008 crisis. This has angered other members, who while publicly chastising their colleagues, stopped short of naming the obvious reason for the seeming abandonment of their core constituents.
But you already know the reason, and you probably also understand why caucus leadership hasn’t said the word out loud.
The banking industry has hundreds of lobbyists, whose sole purpose is to influence lawmakers to vote favorably for their cause. These lobbyists throw truckloads of money at legislators, either legally through generous campaign contributions, or more clandestine means like the proverbial brown envelope stuffed with cash.
And when you think about it, going after black lawmakers is a logical move. Campaign contributions are hard to come by in the black community, and politicians desperate to fill their coffers are often forced to take contributions they’d rather reject.
But even that excuse doesn’t hold water when we’re talking about taking money to vote against the interests of the people who voted you into office.
And before we get all high and mighty here, we should take a moment to localize the issue. Not long ago, the Pennsylvania Attorney General named four sitting state legislators as targets of an undercover sting in which they pocketed cash and gifts from a government informant posing as a lobbyist.
While the lobbyist did ask for votes on the Voter ID issue, it was fairly understood that Black lawmakers would have voted no anyway, cash or no cash. But what if the quid pro quo required was a vote the legislator would not have made otherwise? Can we honestly believe they’d take the money and still vote against the lobbyist’s request?
Years ago, when there were precious few blacks in public office, the one goal of the Black community was to get people who look like us in positions of power. It was a laudable goal at the time. No one could have predicted that as time went on, those now-powerful blacks would succumb to the same temptations as their white counterparts. But politicians have to raise money to remain in office, and no one wants to lose an election because they were outspent. (Ask the folks who just lost the gubernatorial primary. They’ll confirm this.)
It’s clearly time to re-examine that original goal. It’s not only important to get black people into public office, but to elect the sort of black people who will keep the community first, no matter the temptations. It won’t be easy, and no one is immune to the lure of hard cash, but if our collective agenda is to advance, it must be through legislators who never forget where they come from, and who they work for.
The future of Black America depends on it.
(Daryl Gale is the city editor of The Philadelphia Tribune.)