Is The Black Caucus Ready To Ride The Progressive Wave?

The Congressional Black Caucus is eliciting criticism for siding with Rep. Eliot Engel, a white incumbent, against Black primary challenger Jamaal Bowman.
Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman addresses supporters on Tuesday night. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC backed his opponent, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It should be the Congressional Black Caucus’s biggest moment.

Multiple CBC members being vetted as a potential vice presidential pick. A national uprising over systemic racism in policing that could finally address core issues in Black communities. And a host of Black progressives winning Democratic nominations that will almost certainly sweep them into office.

But with the CBC either not endorsing some of those liberal Black candidates who won Tuesday night — or outright opposing them — many activists are wondering if the CBC is progressive enough to lead this movement.

“If it wasn’t clear before tonight, I hope it is now. The CBC is disconnected from middle and lower black America,” progressive Black activist Danny D. Glover tweeted Tuesday night after the election results.

“Do not listen to them,” he added.

Glover, who ran the outreach program for historically black colleges and universities for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, told HuffPost on Wednesday that the CBC’s reluctance to endorse Black candidates with left-wing credentials ― candidates who appear to have won their Democratic nominations Tuesday ― speaks to a “lack of connection” to working-class voters.

“The fact that they’re willing to stake their entire reputation and legacy on folks that exist outside of the mission of the Congressional Black Caucus says a lot about the leadership,” Glover said, referring to the CBC’s endorsement of 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) over Black middle school principal Jamaal Bowman.

Maurice Weeks, the co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, also said the Engel endorsement over Bowman spoke to “a larger crisis for the CBC in this moment, where it’s clear they’re not actually representative of the progressive Black agenda in America.”

“Folks like Bowman are the face of that agenda,” Weeks said.

Bowman ultimately defeated Engel, the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, and a number of liberal activists noticed that the CBC threw its weight behind Engel, who is white, over, say, helping Black challengers in open races, like Mondaire Jones in a nearby district.

“The CBC has spent more to protect Eliot Engel against a Black challenger than they’ve done to get a Black man across the finish line.”

- Sean McElwee, co-founder, Data for Progress

“The CBC has spent more to protect Eliot Engel against a Black challenger than they’ve done to get a Black man across the finish line,” activist Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, noted to HuffPost last Friday.

A spokesperson for the CBC PAC did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

CBC PAC Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) defended the Engel endorsement to Politico, citing Engel’s role in advocating against police brutality. “You judge a person based upon the merit of their service,” he said. “So if you earn it, that’s who we support.”

Jones, who was the clear front-runner in a race to succeed retiring Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), didn’t get the CBC’s endorsement until Saturday, three days before the primary — and only after HuffPost began asking CBC leaders why the group hadn’t endorsed Jones. “They endorsed Mondaire when it didn’t matter,” a senior aide to a progressive House member said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

Meeks told HuffPost last week that “generally” the CBC “stays out of it” if there are multiple Black candidates in an open-seat race. In the Jones race, among a field of seven candidates, there was another Black challenger, Asha Castleberry-Hernandez. But while Jones was polling at 25%, Castleberry-Hernandez was polling at 3% ― and she had raised a fraction of the money that Jones had. Meanwhile, there were two other white candidates polling in the mid-teens.

And if the CBC PAC generally stays out of it when there is more than one viable Black candidate, that wasn’t the standard they held in a different New York City race. 

In the South Bronx, Afro-Latino progressive Ritchie Torres beat out another crowded primary field to represent one of the most Democratic districts in the country. Yet he wasn’t the one who got the CBC’s endorsement. That went to New York Assemblyman Michael Blake, despite Torres’s apparently greater electoral viability.

Many activists think the CBC preferred Blake, the vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, because of his ties to the New York Democratic political machine, whereas Torres ― who, like Jones, is gay ― touted himself as the most electable progressive option. (Blake also prided himself on being a liberal candidate, running on an affordable-housing platform and amplifying criticism of Torres for watering down a police reform bill while on the City Council.)

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, has defended the decision to endorse Rep. Eliot Engel's reelection.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

Regardless, in a number of Democratic primaries Tuesday ― the first major elections since Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in late May ― Black insurgents cleaned up. 

Although the abundance of votes cast via absentee ballots has postponed the official results, the score was clearly in progressives’ favor. Bowman holds a lead over Engel widely viewed as insurmountable. Jones won his nomination. Torres, too. And Charles Booker is currently ahead of well-funded ― and longtime favorite ― U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath in Kentucky. 

In all of those cases, electing a new generation of liberal leaders went hand in hand with a new generation of Black candidates. And with other new, stalwart progressives in the CBC ― like Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) ― combined with more experienced liberal lawmakers like Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the caucus could be a progressive force in the House in years to come.

In fact, the CBC is already flexing its muscle. On Thursday, the House passed a sweeping police reform bill that was largely composed by members of the CBC.

But activists and progressive aides worry that some of the old trappings of the caucus ― taking corporate money, being friendly with Wall Street and lobbyists, and defending institutionalist norms, like seniority and incumbency ― could threaten its ability to be a progressive force. And the decision to endorse Engel over Bowman typifies that concern.

“Endorsing Engel over Bowman is absurd,” the senior progressive House aide told HuffPost. “They should have been aware of the dynamics of that race. More sophisticated actors would have stayed out.”

Part of the issue is that, despite a desire for change from a number of members in the CBC, many are party loyalists. The CBC has had success in supporting a tenure system in Congress, which rewards the members who can stick around the longest with powerful committee chair positions. Many CBC members sit in safe Democratic districts, and don’t like the idea of primary challenges. In fact, the CBC has a policy of supporting incumbents. 

In 2018, the CBC endorsed then-Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who went on to be unseated by Pressley, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. And barring a massive upset, Bowman will enter Congress and the CBC next year after the organization opposed his candidacy.

But it’s not just the CBC supporting incumbents over Black candidates. The CBC has endorsed ― or chosen not to endorse anyone ― in a number of curious races. 

For instance, the CBC hasn’t endorsed Will Cunningham, a former aide to CBC lion Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who died last year. 

Cunningham is running to unseat Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a Democrat turned Republican in South New Jersey. And while Cunningham ― who, like Jones and Torres, is also gay ― has not generated nearly the money or enthusiasm of other Black insurgents, a campaign adviser argued that a CBC endorsement could change that. 

“This is the kind of race that the CBC should be pushing,” Cunningham adviser Kaushal Thakkar told HuffPost. 

Will Cunningham, an attorney and former House aide, is competing for a South New Jersey congressional seat. He doesn't yet have the Congressional Black Caucus PAC's endorsement.
Will Cunningham for Congress/Facebook

The CBC’s non-endorsements are especially glaring alongside the list of candidates they have chosen to back. In addition to standing by Engel, the caucus endorsed the reelection of Josh Gottheimer, a white, centrist Democrat facing a progressive challenge July 7 in a suburban New Jersey swing seat. Gottheimer leads a bloc of moderate Democrats and Republicans that prevented the Democratic-controlled House from placing tougher humanitarian conditions on a border funding bill in July. Gottheimer’s challenger, Arati Kreibich, is a neuroscientist who immigrated to the U.S. from India as a child. 

Questions remain about how the CBC PAC actually decides its endorsements. The PAC told The Intercept in February 2016 that it endorsed Hillary Clinton for president based on a vote conducted by its board of directors. At the time, the 20-person board included 11 lobbyists and seven members of Congress.  

The CBC PAC’s board now includes 11 members of Congress. But it still contains many corporate lobbyists, including Cherie Wilson, a General Motors lobbyist; Daron Watts, who recently represented two pharmaceutical companies and the tobacco vape manufacturer Juul; William Kirk, who last year lobbied for a Michigan-based electric utility, an Atlanta-based real estate development firm and Starbucks; and former Rep. Al Wynn of Maryland, whose clients in 2019 included British American Tobacco and coal company Peabody Energy. (Wynn entered the lobbying world after losing to progressive primary challenger Donna Edwards in 2008.)  

But that is not to say the CBC simply bows to the whims of corporate lobbyists, nor does it mean the caucus is monolithic. The group includes members of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, including Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), as well as storied progressives such as Lee, Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.). And Pressley and Omar also offer a left-wing perspective as part of a young vanguard that has sometimes clashed with Democratic leadership.

“It really does push back on this notion that progressive challengers are just white hipsters.”

- Maurice Weeks, Action Center for Race and the Economy

But, as a group, the CBC has been especially hostile toward the activist left’s strategy of targeting incumbents. 

Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has only ever run two candidates against CBC members. The organization supported nurse Cori Bush’s unsuccessful run against Rep. Lacy Clay in Missouri in 2018, and attorney Morgan Harper’s losing bid to unseat Rep. Joyce Beatty in Ohio this cycle. (Bush is running a second time against Clay in Missouri’s Aug. 4 primary.)

The races were enough to prompt CBC to lambaste Justice Democrats in the press. Last July, Meeks, the CBC PAC chairman, implied that the progressive political action committee might be motivated by a bias against Black members of Congress. Clay compared the outfit to the “Russian trolls of 2016.”

For some Black progressives, Bowman’s victory, in particular, provides an opportunity to take some of the air out of the idea that the CBC is under attack from a predominantly white group of progressive activists.

In the words of Weeks, who organizes low-income communities of color behind progressive economic policies, Bowman exudes “a working-class work ethic and is supported by this very, very diverse community.”

“It really does push back on this notion that progressive challengers are just white hipsters,” Weeks said. 

Progressives might soon get their wish. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) told Politico that it was time for the CBC to take a closer look at its policy of supporting incumbent Democratic allies, particularly when the primary challenger is Black. “Black candidates are running and fighting and qualified to run for office,” she said.

Glover called Bowman’s win a “reckoning” for the CBC. He predicted that if CBC members didn’t embrace the more ambitious calls for reform issued by the younger Black protesters taking the streets over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, individual CBC members would be run out of office with primary challenges.

“This inflection point we have does not deal with only white people. This inflection point also speaks directly to the establishment of both Blacks and whites,” he said. “Gone are the days of them just giving us lip service.”

Scenes From Capitol Hill
Selfie Time(01 of 36)
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), shoots a video selfie as he heads to the House floor for votes on March 4, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Giffords' Voice(02 of 36)
Former Congresswoman and handgun violence survivor Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) speaks during a news conference about background checks for gun purchases at the Canon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 4, 2015. (credit: Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)
Netanyahu Speaks(03 of 36)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he steps to the lectern prior to speaking before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 3, 2015. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) applaud. (credit: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
Netanyahu Speaks(04 of 36)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves after speaking before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 3, 2015. (credit: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Twinning(05 of 36)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chuckles as she starts a news conference by donning dark glasses, a teasingly sympathetic gesture to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as he recovers from a serious injury to his right eye, suffered while exercising at his Nevada home during the holidays. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (credit: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Smooch(06 of 36)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) responds to reporters about the impasse over passing the Homeland Security budget because of Republican efforts to block President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration on Feb. 26, 2015, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (credit: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Code Pink Targets Kerry(07 of 36)
Code Pink protesters hold up a sign as Secretary of State John Kerry arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 25, 2015, to testify before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. (credit: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
Cool Shades(08 of 36)
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (left) speaks as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) listens during a news briefing after the weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon on Feb. 24, 2015. Reid was wearing glasses following a recent eye surgery. (credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
Space Socks(09 of 36)
The socks of former NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin are shown as he testifies before the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee on Capitol Hill on Feb. 24, 2015. (credit: Win McNamee via Getty Images)
Kerry Plots(10 of 36)
Secretary of State John Kerry appears before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs on Feb. 24, 2015, to talk about fiscal year 2016 funding for the State Department. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Liberace In Washington(11 of 36)
A cardboard cutout of Las Vegas star Liberace stands outside the office of Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) in the Cannon House Office Building on Feb. 18, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Workers Rally(12 of 36)
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) attends a rally with labor groups, including the American Federation of Government Employees, in Upper Senate Park to support federal workers and the working class, on Feb. 10, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Senate Laughter(13 of 36)
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) (3rd L) laughs as he talks to (L-R) Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) before a news conference on currency and trade Feb. 10, 2015, on Capitol Hill. (credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
Carrying Reagan Through The Capitol(14 of 36)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) walks through the basement of the Capitol with a painting of former President Ronald Reagan by artist Steve Penley on Feb. 11, 2015. The painting will be added to Issa's collection of Reagan memorabilia. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Sad Speaker(15 of 36)
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) holds his weekly press conference in the Capitol on Feb. 5, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Group Hug(16 of 36)
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) gives a group hug to students from the Richard Wright Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., during his National School Choice Forum in the Hart Senate Office Building on Feb. 9, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Ukraine In Washington(17 of 36)
Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 5, 2015. Delegates from the Ukrainian Parliament joined members of the House of Representatives to appeal for lethal military aid from the U.S. (credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Back On The Hill(18 of 36)
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks to the media as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) listens, following the Senate Democrats' policy lunch on Feb. 3, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
CodePink(19 of 36)
The protest group CodePink disrupts a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, carrying banners calling former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a "war criminal" as he and fellow former Secretary of States George Shultz and Madeleine Albright were set to testify on U.S. national security on Capitol Hill on Jan. 29, 2015. (credit: Andrew Harnik/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Democratic Retreat(20 of 36)
Naomi Sherman, 4, right, along with her father, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.); mother, Lisa; and sisters, Lucy, 2, and Molly, 5, prepares to board a bus that will take House Democrats and their families to a retreat in Philadelphia on Jan. 28, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Did You See That?(21 of 36)
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), left, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) talk before a news conference in the Capitol's Senate studio to "respond to the Obama administration's efforts to lock up millions of acres of the nation's richest oil and natural gas prospects on the Arctic coastal plain and move to block development of Alaska's offshore resources" on Jan. 26, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
That's A Big Hammer(22 of 36)
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), left, reacts as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) brings out a giant gavel while making remarks during an executive business meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22, 2015. Leahy ceremonially passed the gavel to Grassley who has taken up the chairmanship after the Republicans won the majority in the Senate. (credit: Alex Wong via Getty Images)
State Of The Union Excitement(23 of 36)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) as senators arrive for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
SOTU Selfie(24 of 36)
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) takes a selfie with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) as Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) sits nearby before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Hello, Mr. President(25 of 36)
President Barack Obama, bottom right, is greeted by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), center, as he arrives to deliver the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Jan. 20, 2015. (credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Making His Point(26 of 36)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) holds a news conference on the budget on Jan. 16, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Searching The Senator(27 of 36)
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and his wife, Laura, have their luggage inspected by a police dog before boarding a bus that will take Republican senators to a retreat in Hershey, Pa., January 14, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Retreating From Capitol Hill(28 of 36)
Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) walks by immigration protesters on his way to one of the buses outside the Rayburn House Office Building as House Republicans prepare to head to Hershey, Pa., for their retreat with Senate Republicans on Jan. 14, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) fools around with colleagues upon arriving for a news conference on Guantanamo detainees in the Senate studio on Jan. 13, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Oh Boy!(30 of 36)
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Jan. 13, 2015. House Democrats spoke about U.S. President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. (credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Paying Off The Bet(31 of 36)
From left, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) make symbols that spell "Ohio" on Jan. 13, 2015, as the result of a football bet. Ohio State beat the University of Oregon 42-20 in the NCAA national football championship. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Frustration(32 of 36)
(credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Cleanliness(33 of 36)
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sanitizes his hands while talking on his cell phone outside the Mansfield Room in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 2015. (credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Hats In The Hallways(34 of 36)
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) walks with her family through the Will Rogers Hallway after the swearing-in of the 114th Congress on the House floor on Jan. 6, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Baby Face(35 of 36)
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) holds Andrea Elena Castro, daughter of Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), second from right, before the 114th Congress was sworn in on the House floor of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2015. (credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Snowy First Day(36 of 36)
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) leaves a church service on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2015, the first day of the 114th Congress. (credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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