December 11, 2006

The Congressional Black Caucus has unanimously elected 10-year incumbent Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick from Michigan as its new Chair for the 110th Congress. Kilpatrick, 61, is the fifth woman to lead the CBC in its 37-year existence. She succeeds Congressman Mel Watt of North Carolina as leader of this active group of 42 U.S. Representatives plus one U.S. Senator.

Rep. Kilpatrick, a lifelong Michigan resident, represents the 13th Congressional District in that state, which includes Detroit and parts of the surrounding suburbs. Kilpatrick was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, unseating an incumbent Black female Democrat -- Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins. Kilpatrick is currently a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Within the CBC, Rep. Kilpatrick has been a rising star. Congresswoman Kilpatrick was the first African-American Member of Congress appointed to the United States Air Force Academy Board, which oversees the programs of the U.S. Air Force Academy. She was selected to serve as the first Chairwoman of the CBC's Political Action Committee. Most recently, Kilpatrick was 2nd Vice-Chairperson of the CBC during the 109th Congress, and she served as Co-Chair of the CBC Foundation's 36th Annual Legislative Conference.

Rep. Kilpatrick could not ask for a better time to become Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. With Democrats holding a majority in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years, African Americans could be heading as many as four Committees and 20 subcommittees. Even the New York Times is paying more attention to the CBC's ascent to new political heights.

On the other hand, at a time when disparities between communities of African descent and white communities are evident in almost every aspect of American life, Chairwoman Kilpatrick will be under pressure to increase the CBC's ability to pressure the new Democratic leadership of both Houses of Congress -- and to deliver for communities across the nation. And the CBC's work during these two years will be performed with the 2008 Presidential election as a key factor in decisionmaking by all Democrats. If U.S. Senator Barack Obama (IL) becomes a Presidential candidate, the CBC will be under even more scrutiny.

The CBC has consistently submitted its alternate budget reflecting different priorities from the House as a whole. Long-time incumbents such as Rep. John Conyers (MI), Rep. Ed Towns (NY), and Rep. Donna Christiansen (Delegate - Virgin Islands) have held high-profile hearings an gatherings on key issues in the Black communities, including health care disparities and police brutality. As the Sean Bell police shooting in New York City sadly illustrates, such energetic leadership is as needed today as it ever has been.

In addition, critical matters such as Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and voting rights are ongoing concerns that require and will receive maximum vigilance on the part of the Caucus. Victories may be hard to come by and they will certainly be hard fought. Rep. Kilpatrick pledges to be up to the tasks at hand. After her election as Chair, the Congresswoman is quoted by the Associated Press as saying "watch out for us" -- "We will take this Caucus to another level."

Regarding her personal political history, Kilpatrick's past voting record reflects a party line approach overall. This includes her 2005 vote against H.R. 3045 -- the Free Trade Agreement involving Latin American nations and the Dominican Republic. One deviation from the Democratic Party line was her December 6th vote on H.R. 1082. Kilpatrick refused to condemn a town in France that is naming a street after Bro. Mumia Abu-Jamal, the controversial activist and writer convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. Jamal has maintained his innocence, and his case has generated national and international attention.

Kilpatrick received a B+ rating from one advocacy group for her votes on the Darfur crisis, placing her in the top 146 of the 535 total Congressional members (including Senators); this grade happens to be below that of her Michigan colleague, John Conyers, who received a grade of A. Critics of the CBC maintain, however, that the female CBC members have, as a group, been a more progressive force in the Congress than the male members.

Relatively low-key on the national level, Rep. Kilpatrick is also known as the mother of controversial Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Mayor Kilpatrick struggled during his first term as Mayor but made a "miracle" comeback to win re-election in 2005. Personally speaking, when I saw the Mayor's inspirational speech at the funeral of Mother Rosa Parks, I knew he would win the election -- which was only days away. He might agree that it was indeed the speech of his life.

All hail Queen Carolyn Kilpatrick!

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