December 4, 2006

Since all politics is local, let us start with the fact that Sean Bell's shooting by New York's Finest is a vicious reminder of the fragility of life and the twists of American justice. When victimized by the combined forces of economic oppression, racial discrimination, and fear of criminal behavior, Black people are asked time and time again to give the criminal justice system another chance.

Yet "second chances" are not often offered to Black people -- particularly Black elected or appointed leaders -- unless we actually control the decision making process. Examples to consider include the late Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rep. William Jefferson from New Orleans, and former Judge Alcee Hastings, a Congressman from Florida.

Powell was repeatedly re-elected by his Black constituents even after several small scandals had led the House of Representatives to strip Powell of his seniority during the 1960s and expel him from its ranks. (It should be noted that both acts by the House were later found by the U.S. Supreme Court to have been illegal on Constitutional grounds.)

Congressman Jefferson currently faces indictment in a messy bribery case. Investigators found $90,000 in his freezer prior to Hurricane Katrina, and Jefferson's Capitol Hill offices were raided by federal authorities -- an unfortunate first in American history. Yet Jefferson is on his way to re-election.

The Alcee Hastings case, however, is equally interesting and very sad. Hastings was a federal judge in Florida. Corruption and perjury charges led to Hastings' impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and removal from office by the U.S. Senate in 1989. Then, in court, Hastings was acquitted of the charges by a jury after an alleged co-conspirator (himself later pardoned by President Clinton) refused to testify against him. In 1992, Hastings was elected to the House of Representatives, where he has served without scandal and has risen to leadership posts within the House Democratic Caucus.

One of Hastings ' committee assignments is the Intelligence Committee. As a House member with significant seniority on the Committee, Hastings had the potential to become Chair of this important committee should the Democrats regain control of the House -- which happened on November 7th. The new House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, had long indicated that the most senior Democrat, fellow Californian Jane Harmon, would not be her choice to lead the Intelligence Committee due in part to Harmon's support of the Iraq War.

As the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pelosi needs and wants the Congressional Black Caucus to work well with her. Several high-profile CBC members, such as Representatives John Conyers (MI - Judiciary), Charles Rangel (NY – Ways and Means), and Bennie Thompson (MS – Homeland Security) are in line to lead either Committees or Subcommittees. The CBC's potential power and influence is significant.

Speaker-elect Pelosi tripped up on her politics, however. She supported Pennsylvania Representative John Murtha against the perceived rightful occupant of the Majority Leader position, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Murtha, a war hawk who saw the light on Iraq and made headlines pushing the Bush Administration into a corner, also has a tainted ethical history. Hoyer is a popular Democratic Caucus leader who happens to have had long-standing tension with Pelosi.

By unsuccessfully supporting Murtha for Majority Leader, Pelosi appeared to have exhausted whatever latitude she had in making appointments based more on her personal preferences than the realpolitik of the Democratic Caucus. Murtha was soundly defeated and the media started chewing on Pelosi's leadership style and potential.

The real loser, of course, was the Black man. In this case, Rep. Alcee Hastings was perceived as the heir apparent to lead the Intelligence Committee. In the aftermath of Pelosi's Murtha miscue, the media harped on Hastings' impeachment as evidence of corruption and disqualification. Note that no one has claimed any improprieties or problems with Hastings' service in the House or on the Intelligence Committee itself. Hastings' impeachment might have been awkward for Pelosi but it need not have been fatal to his selection as Committee chair if Pelosi really wanted to make it happen.

Frankly, however, Speaker-elect Pelosi may never have intended to select Hastings but wanted to look good to the CBC by implying she would. Pelosi always knew that the Hastings judicial impeachment would be a handy excuse -- and a key one in the aftermath of her Murtha debacle -- for pursuing a more important long-term objective.

The resulting selection of Texas Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, a Hispanic and former Border Patrol guard, to lead the Intelligence Committee highlighted the political strategy that the Democratic leadership will pursue not just between now and 2008 but going forwards. Democrats need Hispanic support to be as strong as possible. Republicans handed Democrats an opportunity to hold and strengthen their appeal to Hispanic voters, but the Democratic leadership knows that, in the end, issues like immigration will bite them as much as they have Republicans. And Democrats want political cover.

Accordingly, every opportunity to bolster Hispanic political strength will be grabbed by the Democratic Party leadership. More than likely, Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (Illinois), a former Bill Clinton operative and architect of Democratic House gains in this past election, had a strong hand in ensuring that Pelosi followed this script.

One of the reasons why New York's 11th Congressional District Democratic Primary battle to succeed Major Owens earned many headlines was the disparity between the fundraising capacity of Black candidates and incumbents and the capacity of whites. Simply put, it is huge -- remember that the white candidate raised as much money as the three Black candidates combined. Rahm Emmanuel and Company want to bolster DCCC coffers and keep or increase the Party's power. That is why incredible pressure is placed upon incumbent House Members to cough up tens of thousands of dollars in "dues" to the House Democratic Caucus as well as contributions to the DCCC. And this is one reason why CBC members can be treated as expendable.

For various reasons that would take too long to discuss here, Hispanic members as a group have done a better job of bringing in the dollars and there is even greater potential as demographic changes morph majority Black districts into mixed minority or majority Hispanic districts. (House seats like those held by Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California are already unlikely to remain represented by an African American after the next census.) The Democratic Party leadership, therefore, is not overly concerned about being "nice" to the CBC; they really want more money from members and expand support in America's Hispanic communities.

So here is the irony. Black Americans are the most loyal Democratic voters; far more loyal than whites. (An excellent case in point is Maryland's U.S. Senate race, where an African-American Republican candidate nearly won in a Democratic state. Yet, in this race, Black voters actually rejected the Black candidate by an 80% to 20% margin.) And, white power brokers want to raise money to convince Blacks to vote Democratic -- which is necessary since both Democrats and Republicans have not done enough, for example, to assist the Black victims of Katrina. Yet, as leaders within the Halls of Congress and elsewhere, Blacks are more expendable because they themselves do not bring in enough big dollars to keep the institution known as the Democratic Party either competitive or in power.

In short, America has moved to the right -- not simply on principles, but also with regard to the methodology of taking and holding power. "Corporate" power -- the dominance of money -- was pushed to the fore by the Republicans but the Democrats are not backing away one bit. Though demographic-driven tensions are inevitable, conflicts between Blacks and Hispanics should not sap each group's energy and political capital with each other while the corporate white powerstructure goes relatively unchallenged. America cannot be the nation it can and should be without a truly representative and inclusive political system.

Whoever is weak politically suffers at the policy table. Yet, across the board, what is good for African Americans is good for all Americans. So what choice do Black House members have? African Americans with seniority must now be at the table – even those with imperfect backgrounds, like Alcee Hastings. If the CBC does not fight to maximize its power now, then historic and irreplaceable opportunities will be lost.

Let the justice games begin.

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