Black Democrats vs. McCain

Campaign reform prepares to heat up the House -- and Congressional Black Caucus members emerge as the bill's first major foes.


Jake Tapper
June 27, 2001 10:56PM (UTC)

Last August, Rep. Albert R. Wynn, D-Md., was the victim of an unseemly campaign stunt, one rooted in his marital woes. Wynn's opponent, John Kimble, secured the support of Wynn's soon to be ex-wife, Jessie Wynn, who appeared at campaign events with Kimble in front of a banner that read, "Al Wynn left his black wife and child for a white woman."

Jessie Wynn also lent her voice to recorded messages phoned to voters that delivered a similar message. Kimble's desperate tactic was ugly but ineffective; Wynn was re-elected with 88 percent of the vote.

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Many Democratic African-American congressmen, like Wynn, enjoy safe districts -- Wynn's is 58.4 percent black -- and easy campaigns that can withstand such tawdry attacks. But another factor inoculating them from attacks is Democratic Party largesse. Much of that largesse comes in the form of "soft money," the unregulated unlimited party cash spent on various efforts made on the behalf of candidates -- and that has been targeted by the recent campaign finance reform bill that passed the Senate and is now coming up in the House. And for that reason, a majority of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus are wondering about whether the reform proposal is really in their best interest.

Using soft money for get-out-the-vote and voter registration activities "is the way many of the members of the black caucus think elections are won, even if their districts are safe," says one Democratic strategist. "They think, 'I have got to turn my people out.'" A candidate like Wynn, they will argue, has already built such familiarity within his district through these activities he can withstand the occasional ugly attack.

"It's difficult for black members in safe districts to raise money," says one black member of Congress, speaking on condition of anonymity. "In many ways, we rely on soft money to provide us with resources toward the ends of our campaigns." Such resources are needed for various voter education, registration, and get-out-the-vote Election Day activities, the member says. "Our white colleagues in safe districts are able to amass these huge war chests, but it's tougher for African-American and Latino members [of Congress] to do so. Even groups that are reliable, like unions, don't shower us with the same attention. So soft money is the way for us to campaign."

Indeed, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that the average House candidate raised $919,000, with the average black caucus member taking in just more than half of that figure, or $479,000. But those numbers are misleading in some respects, and it is unclear that members of the black caucus are as dependent upon soft money as some would have you believe.

Months ago, as the campaign finance reform proposal offered by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., passed the Senate, a McCain-Feingold strategist chided the Dickensian surnames of the House Republicans lining up to oppose the bill: Ney, DeLay and Doolittle.

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But while the House Republicans leadership remains steadfastly opposed to the House version -- offered by Reps. Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass. -- the greater threat perhaps comes from the Wynn and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the vast majority of whom supported the bill in previous years. Out of 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. estimates that only 15 to 20 will join him in supporting the Shays-Meehan bill, which will ban soft money and increase the hard money dollar limits from $1,000 to $2,000 per donor per candidate. And, Ford says, that's the good news.

"Two weeks ago we only had three or four supporters, so this is an improvement," Ford says.

Members of the McCain-Feingold team in the Senate say that they're confident about the efforts by Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and black caucus supporters Ford, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to build support for Shays-Meehan, which will hit the floor of the House after the July 4 recess. But they are concerned with the faction of black caucus members standing opposed to the soft money ban, who have been wondering aloud about whether such a ban will disproportionately harm minority Congress members. This contingent includes Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters of California, a deputy Minority Whip; Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Sanford Bishop of Georgia, Earl Hilliard of Alabama, and the chairman of the black caucus's Campaign Finance Reform Task Force, Albert Wynn.

Wynn might have survived criticism that he left his black wife for a white woman, but he's not going to be accused of abandoning what African-American Democrats believe is their interest, as opposed to campaign finance reform, an issue many members of the black caucus say is not of concern to their constituents. On June 21, Wynn testified before the House Committee on Administration, chaired by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, that the issue is "over-hyped ... driven in large part by the media."

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"The Florida experience has taught us two things," Wynn said. "One: soft money used properly can mobilize minority voters and increase turn-out; and, two, that these funds can be used for voter education tools, such as sample ballots to help voters avoid confusion and protect the voting rights of minority voters."

Wynn then offered an alternative campaign finance reform proposal, one supported by several of his caucus colleagues, which would cap soft money contributions at $50,000 per donor, not unlike the alternate proposal offered during the Senate debate by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Unlike Hagel, however, Wynn proposed that the soft money be stored in a separate account and "used solely for voter registration and education, GOTV" -- "get out the vote" activities -- "and party building."

As for the increase in hard-dollar limits, Wynn referred to the caucus's "near unanimous opposition to the idea of raising the hard money contribution limits ... We cannot fathom how one would reform the system by allowing more money to be raised. Candidates raising money from moderate income constituents are at a distinct disadvantage compared to an opponent with more well heeled friends." Wynn suggested, instead that current hard money contribution limits be indexed to inflation. Compromise efforts are reportedly already underway to change Shays-Meehan so that the hard dollar limits increase for Senate campaigns, but for House campaigns the current limits either remain or increase just slightly.

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As was the case while McCain-Feingold made its way through the Senate, there's no shortage of conspiracy theories, wary eyes and odd alliances potentially at play as the Shays-Meehan bill prepares to hit the House floor. Ney and the Republican leadership are also working on a compromise bill, one that could attract enough support from the black caucus to effectively sandbag Shays-Meehan; Wynn has expressed a willingness to work with Ney, whose bill is expected to move from the Administration committee he chairs to the House floor later this week.

And, as with McCain-Feingold, past supporters of the bill -- faced with the possibility that this time the bill might actually pass -- are becoming a tad wobbly, not just members of the black caucus. Ford talks about the "challenge Chris [Shays] will have in trying to hold onto his group [of moderate Republicans] on his side."

And then there are those whom McCain thinks owe him and the cause of reform their support. Having campaigned for dozens of GOP House candidates last fall -- credited by some in the GOP as a key factor in keeping the House in Republican hands -- McCain is trying to cash in his chits. Asked if McCain would take into account votes on Shays-Meehan when planning his 2002 itinerary, a Republican close to the McCain team said that it would surely be a factor.

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On June 20, McCain sent a pointed letter to Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., referring to the October 30 promise Shaw made "to lead the fight for reform" -- in the throes of a tough re-election battle -- at a West Palm Beach campaign event with McCain. Shays wonders about the 16 House Republican freshmen for whom McCain campaigned "under the mantle of reform," only two of whom have co-sponsored the Shays-Meehan bill. Shays has encouraged these freshmen to support his and McCain's efforts, but so far to little avail.

Almost none of the freshman Republicans for whom McCain campaigned ever pledged support for the Shays-Meehan bill specifically. However, they may have promised to fight for "reform" in more general terms. The voiced complaints from the black caucus, on the other hand, are a more direct contradiction to members' past votes in support of a soft-money ban. "Except for three or four of them, these are all people who have voted for this in the past," says Meridith McGehee, senior vice president of Common Cause, which supports Shays-Meehan.

Moreover, regardless of the merits of Shays-Meehan, a look at the campaigns the 38 black caucus members have waged calls into question how vulnerable they actually would be without soft money. Two of the 38 members of the caucus are freshmen; of the 36 others, the average percentage of the vote each received in the November 1998 elections -- an off-year, when get-out-the-vote efforts aren't strong -- was 81 percent.

Four ran unopposed, including Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who nonetheless collected $1,113,422 in campaign contributions. The two freshmen, Rep. William "Lacy" Clay Jr. of Missouri and Rep. Diane Watson of California, were each elected with 75 percent of the vote.

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Due to redistricting and gerrymandering, black caucus members as a whole enjoy some of the safest, least competitive congressional seats in the country. Only six members of the entire group represent districts that aren't majority, or at least plurality, African-American. (The six are Democratic Reps. Bishop, Corrine Brown of Florida, Julia Carson of Indiana, Barbara Lee of California, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, and Mel Watt of North Carolina's controversial -- yet still majority white -- 12th congressional district.) Even including these six districts, blacks constitute an average of 54.4 percent of the constituency for each caucus member.

Raising money for black caucus members may not be as easy as it is if for white colleagues, but it is markedly easier than it is for black caucus opponents. Last November, Clay out-raised his Republican opponent by more than $640,000. Not atypical is the example of Rep. Eva Clayton, D-N.C. In her 50.3 percent black district, Clayton out-raised her opponent $698,750 to $25,471 in the 1998 cycle, winning 62 percent of the vote to her foe's 37 percent. In more than a dozen districts, the amount of campaign cash an opponent was able to raise in 1998 was so small that it didn't need to be reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Even in the congressional districts where whites are a plurality or a majority, money has generally not been an issue. In 1998, Lee out-raised her GOP opponent $511,523 to $10,669 in her 31.8 percent black district; she won 83 to 13 percent. McKinney out-raised her opponent 432,730 to $141,315 for her 36.6 percent black district; she won 61 percent to 39 percent. Wynn doesn't come from a district like Lee or McKinney, but his marital woes made some wonder about his re-election chances. But even with his ex-wife campaigning against him, Wynn managed to raise $630,472 for the 2000 election. Kimble, Wynn's opponent, couldn't move his campaign coffers beyond $5,000. And, of course, Wynn won easily.

A study by the good government group Public Citizen bears this out. Black incumbents destroyed all challengers in raising hard money, garnering a collective total of $6.3 million for all black caucus members for the November 2000 election cycle, to their challengers' $1.5 million. In addition, even though CBC members are concerned that raising hard money limits them, Public Citizen reports that the average caucus member received $120,000 from large-money donors -- those who gave the maximum allowable contribution -- while the average challenger only raised $68,000 from the same types of givers.

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So do members of the caucus really need soft money? It would seem that gerrymandering and the natural advantages of incumbents already give them a distinct advantage over any challenger. One study has only a small percentage of Democratic soft money being channeled toward party efforts in predominantly black districts.

Steve Weissman, a legislative representative from Public Citizen, says that only 4 percent of the $50 million in soft money raised last election cycle by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- the DNC's House fundraising arm -- was used for voter outreach efforts in minority districts, while 87 percent was used for TV ads. State parties, Weissman goes on, only devote about 15 percent of their budgets maximum on voter outreach activities. These activities are funded, Weissman says, "largely, though not entirely, from independent groups' money" such as labor unions and the NAACP, "which means that the McCain-Feingold or Shays-Meehan bill will have very little impact on voter education and outreach ... This bill won't hurt African Americans," he says.

The Democratic strategist suggests that black members are less concerned about the way soft money helps them in their own races as they are about the way soft money helps increase the voice of the black community in general. "They have become newly empowered because of the Florida turnout," the strategist says. "They saw that the incredible turnout efforts that soft money helped produced in battleground states took [Vice President Al] Gore over the top, and elected a bunch of senators." Additionally, there's the argument that, since Republicans always out-raise Democrats in hard dollars but achieve rough parity in soft money fund-raising, a soft money ban will be bad for the party in general. "And a bunch of African-Americans in the House are a whisper away from being committee chairman if the Democrats re-take the House."

Not that there isn't any self-interest at play.

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Still, aides to black caucus members point out that states are being re-districted this year, frequently by Republican state legislatures. They may be safe districts for minority legislators now, but members of the black caucus worry about how long that will last.

Still another campaign finance expert says that the reason some members of the black caucus are against banning soft money is because they are just beginning to form their own personal leadership PACs -- which they intend to use in typical fashion, raising money for colleagues so as to increase their power base -- and they don't want to be denied the same tools that white colleagues have been using for years. "That's the underground reason for this," the expert says. "They don't like the fact that this bill hits at their personal fundraising."

"We're asking everybody to change as we change the system," says McGehee. "They're going to have to change, too. I can't think of a system more unrepresentative of the constituencies say they want to represent than the soft-money system, with all that union and corporate money."

Regardless, Ford left a Tuesday evening House Democratic caucus meeting feeling optimistic about Shays-Meehan's chances. "There's an increasing inclination to support it," Ford said immediately after the meeting, adding that a compromise on the hard dollar limits was still in the works. The Democratic leadership has been pushing the bill hard, Ford says, "and that's a good thing."

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Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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