The thin black line

Black liberal Democrats plan to rally behind white centrist candidates to help bring the party back into the majority in the House.

By Ethan Wallison

Published November 8, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

In early 1995, after House Democrats had lost their majority for the first
time in 40 years, Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., met with
his two closest advisors -- George Dalley, a genial Washington lawyer who
is one of the lawmaker's oldest and closest friends, and Bill Lynch,
former deputy mayor of New York and a top party strategist. Rangel, whose opportunity to become chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee had been lost in the "Republican Revolution," wanted an idea for how
his party could reclaim control of the chamber. Lynch had one.

Lynch showed Rangel and Dalley an analysis he had prepared of "toss-up
districts" where the African-American population potentially held the balance of power. "And he had the statistical
data to show," Rangel recalled, "that no matter how small or how large
these African-American votes were, it was the swing vote in these
congressional districts."

What Lynch suggested was a project to transform
these voters from party constituents to party activists. This meant convincing
African-American voters to put aside their short-term goals to
achieve a majority that would favor their interests. More specifically, it
meant backing white candidates -- white centrist candidates, including some who might undercut the goals of the black Democrats once they were in
Congress. "If you can split the white vote and develop the African-American vote, that's a strong combination," one top Rangel associate explained. "You're cooking with some gas." A marriage of convenience was born.

Almost five years later, Rangel presides over a voter mobilization effort that
many party strategists believe has been critical in bringing the Democrats
within five seats of the majority. Although it is difficult to pinpoint
exactly where or how Rangel's operation has been decisive,
several of the party's most critical pick-ups in 1998 -- white freshman
lawmakers such as Joe Hoeffel of Pennsylvania, Ronnie Shows of Mississippi
and Shelley Berkley of Nevada -- were from districts near the top of
Rangel's target list. At the same time, no incumbent Democrat from any of
the 26 originally targeted "toss-up" districts has lost his or her seat in Congress.

Certainly, House Democratic leaders appear to have been convinced by Rangel's effort. They've significantly expanded his operation this election cycle, supplementing the
African-American program with new programs for Hispanics and
Asian-Americans -- all overseen by Rangel from a co-chairmanship created for
him at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with a budget to
match. In 1998, the DCCC dedicated over $1 million to the effort, and the budget is expected to grow significantly this time around.

A related development that may prove to be even more important to the outcome of next year's elections has been a fundamental change in
outlook at the Congressional Black Caucus. Members of the CBC
tend to come from safe districts and have traditionally shunned
involvement with a national party apparatus from which they have never
needed favors.

But now they've entered the electoral fray. Over the past four
years, CBC members such as Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Jesse
Jackson Jr. of Illinois, as well as House Judiciary Committee ranking
member John Conyers of Michigan, have become some of the most aggressive
organizers in the party.

The strength of the operation, insiders say, is a major reason Democrats
are targeting lawmakers like Georgia
GOP Rep. Charlie Norwood, who represents a district that is 38 percent black, but who doesn't otherwise appear vulnerable. (Norwood won in 1998 with 60 percent of the vote.)

And it's a key reason Democrats believe they will be able to protect
party-switching Rep. Michael Forbes, D-N.Y., whose district is 8
percent black and Hispanic. They even believe the seat being
vacated by Ohio Rep. John Kasich, a Republican whose district is 21 percent
African-American, is potentially now in play -- though Democratic
strategists admit internal analyses have shown poor "party performance"
figures in the district.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost, the former
chairman of the DCCC and a top party fund-raiser, said the efforts of Rangel
and the other CBC members will "clearly have been" a key factor if the
Democrats win the majority. "There is no question about that," Frost said.
"We would not be able to do it without them."

Although the project is relatively new, Rangel and his associates trace its
roots directly to a novel bit of organizing accomplished by black House
Democrats in 1973 -- ironically for the purpose of removing a Democrat from
Congress. That member was John L. McMillan of South Carolina, a "boll
weevil" conservative who was running the then-Committee on the District of
Columbia as something of a plantation, in the estimation of many blacks
from his own party.

Led by former District of Columbia delegate Walter
Fauntroy, who had begun to establish a black political network across the
South, they successfully mobilized McMillan's local African-American
community to defeat him in his 1974 primary, allowing Michigan Democratic
Rep. Charles Diggs, the founder and first chairman of the CBC, to take over
the chairmanship of McMillan's committee. "That was the beginning of home
rule," Dalley recalled, referring to the crusade for self-governance in the
primarily black District of Columbia.

By 1995, Fauntroy, rarely seen without a loose-leaf binder that held
a district-by-district analysis of Congress, had developed a vast political
network nationwide, particularly in the South's powerful black
churches. So while Lynch was developing the big picture for Rangel's
nascent operation, Fauntroy became the lawmaker's key link to the people
who held the power in the field -- community leaders who could not only
turn out the vote, but also provide Rangel's operation with valuable
intelligence in critical districts.

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt,
sensing major opportunities for Rangel, lent the charismatic lawmaker his
chief fund-raiser, David Jones. The fund-raising element was crucial, because
Rangel initially lacked financing for his first order of business --
expanding the operation's reach.

"Anything that sounded 'national,' I was talking to, asking whether they
had a chapter or office, and seeing whether my white candidate could have a
meeting with the blacks who ran these different groups," Rangel said. He
contacted fraternities and sororities, non-profits and labor unions. "More
often than not, the blacks didn't know who the hell the white Democratic
candidate was, and the Democratic candidate didn't know who the hell the
black community was -- because, generally speaking, [the white candidates]
go to where [they] think the votes are."

With Rangel's operation showing promise in the field, the DCCC resolved to
commit resources to making it work in 1997. Rangel, for his part, brought
in longtime aide George Henry to oversee the effort at the party committee.
Henry, whom Rangel calls the "physical means" of his operation, was more
than a sharp political operator and a clever strategist. As a 10-year aide
to Rangel, he instinctively understood the lawmaker's tides and could hold
his own as a proxy, if necessary.

Among other things, Henry (along with Jones as fund-raiser) could ask donors to open their wallets for the DCCC -- something Rangel, for all his ties to the black power elite and executives on Wall Street, still cannot bring himself to do. Accordingly, Rangel is now the third-largest fund-raiser among House Democrats, behind only Gephardt and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the chairman of the DCCC.

It is difficult to overstate the revolution in thinking that has made all
this possible. Before the Democrats lost control of the House in 1994, a
serious bid was made within the black caucus to punish centrists and
conservatives who failed to vote the party line. Liberals openly sought, in
particular, to strip these members of their chairmanships on committees and

Even after the Democratic majority was lost, many from the party's
liberal establishment sought a "purge" of apostate members, on the theory
that the party had grown ideologically impure and needed to begin afresh.

Nowhere was that view more concentrated than among members of the black
caucus, the premier source of liberal activism in Congress. Amid all of
this, Rangel was asking his liberal colleagues not simply to put aside their
animosities toward centrists and conservatives; he wanted them to get these
ideological traitors elected to Congress.

The Ronnie Shows campaign became the model for Rangel's plan. Strategizing for
Mississippi's Fourth District in 1997, Rangel and his team had recognized a
vexing trend: The clout of the sizable African-American population in the
district meant local Democrats routinely selected a liberal black candidate
for Congress. That candidate then lost in the general election when
conservative white Democrats bolted.

"The formulation," explained one top Rangel associate, "was that if we
could get two conservative white candidates to run, one Democrat and one
Republican, maybe we could convince the African-American community to get
behind the Democratic candidate" rather than sitting out the election. Shows, a senior state transportation official, was recruited, and Rangel's operation built a base for Shows in the black community. On just one Sunday before the general election, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, a black Democrat from Jackson, shepherded Shows through 24 African-American churches in the district.

While the possibilities for more successes are apparent, there are also serious limits to what Rangel's operation can accomplish. He can't, for example, go into districts and clear the field when other Democrats are determined to run against his candidate. Strategists around Rangel
confide that Democrats are concerned about their efforts to topple Arkansas
GOP Rep. Jay Dickey, a top target, because the party's primary has
attracted at least three Democrats, one of whom is black. That candidate, Judy Smith, was the nominee in 1998 and lost by 16 points to Dickey, even though the district is 27 percent African-American. If Smith wins the nomination again, the strategists assume she will face another white exodus and lose the general election.

There are already signs the intra-party truce that has made Rangel's
mobilization effort possible is not very likely to survive if a new Democratic
majority is achieved. The 1998 elections, in which House Democrats gained five seats, prompted weeks of subtle jousting between black members and centrist Democrats
over who deserved credit for the party's success.

And if Democrats do win the majority next year, not only would Rangel
most likely become chairman of Ways and Means, but Conyers would take the
helm at Judiciary, and Rep. Julian Dixon, a CBC member from California,
would assume the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee. An additional
19 members of the CBC, Rangel notes, are in line for chairmanships on
numerous subcommittees across the house -- not bad for a group with only 38

Perhaps the biggest question they will face once they take power is whether as
chairmen they hand down an agenda that the majority's newest members can take with
them on the next campaign trail, or will they simply repeat the mistakes made by the Republican ideologues of 1994?

Ethan Wallison

Ethan Wallison is a staff writer at Roll Call.

MORE FROM Ethan Wallison

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Charlie Rangel D-n.y.