WASHINGTON – These were supposed to be heady days for African-Americans in Congress, with President Barack Obama occupying the White House and a half-dozen blacks holding powerful committee chairmanships and leadership jobs.
Yet the past two weeks have been a nightmare.
Two of Congress’ most senior African Americans, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and Maxine Waters of California, are fighting to save their reputations and quite possibly their jobs over ethics allegations. Tuesday night, Michigan voters threw out seven-term Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in a Democratic Party election to nominate her or another candidate to run for her job in November’s Congressional elections. Several other lawmakers have lost bids for higher office or are struggling to get traction.
Further complicating matters, the relationship has frayed between members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Obama, the first black president, with lawmakers seething over what they see as his neglect of their agenda. Their priorities such as jobs programs and emergency aid to needy families have been stripped repeatedly from spending bills in the face of Republican opposition.
The frustration came to a head last week when, amid a racial uproar over the botched ouster of a black Agriculture Department employee, the White House cut a deal with Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln to bypass Congress and devote $1.5 billion in emergency aid to farmers. It is exactly the kind of arrangement that black lawmakers have been seeking for more than a year to pay for an unfunded, $1.2 billion settlement agreement between the department and black farmers, only to be told that no money was available.
Black leaders were furious, and it did not help that the news came as the White House was forced to apologize for pressuring Shirley Sherrod to resign from the Agriculture Department over misleading video snippets depicting her as a racist.
“I didn't believe it,” black caucus chairwoman Barbara Lee said last week of the funding agreement with Lincoln, who is considered vulnerable in November’s Senate elections.
Lee and others rejected interview requests from The Associated Press on Wednesday, underscoring the sensitivity of their predicament.
While most black members of Congress hold safely Democratic seats, they are under intense pressure to bring relief to their districts, many of which are in poor urban areas suffering disproportionately from the economic downturn. Their voters, like those elsewhere, are showing little patience.
“Everybody expected they would have gotten further. That's the surprise,” said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor who studies African American politics.
The ethics distractions will not help.
Rangel’s tax and finance troubles already have cost him his powerful chairmanship over the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, while many argue that Kilpatrick lost because of the shadow cast by her son, Kwame Kilpatrick. He resigned as Detroit’s mayor in 2008 after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and is serving prison time.
Waters, a senior member of the Financial Services Committee, faces allegations that she intervened inappropriately to get the Treasury Department to help a black-owned bank in which her husband owned stock and had served on the board of directors.
Black lawmakers so far have defended Rangel and Waters, saying they are entitled to due process even as many Democrats worry that their insistence on public trials just before the election could deliver a devastating blow to the party in the elections. While some black lawmakers have grumbled privately that race may be a factor in the ethics process, few will say that publicly.
Obama’s victory has not translated into the kind of model some had hoped as primaries play out across the country.
In Alabama, Rep. Artur Davis, seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and the black caucus, gave up his seat to run for governor. He was trounced in the Democratic primary in June by the state's agriculture commissioner, Ron Sparks.
Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida is making a similar long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate seat in Florida but trails badly in polls.
The only current black senator, Roland Burris, decided against running for re-election as his political benefactor disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed Burris to fill the vacant seat left by Obama, faces corruption charges.