In the past two weeks, one could make the argument that African American politicians are somehow under siege.
With Republicans headed into a majority, the four Congressional Black Caucus Members lose Chairmanships over powerful House committees. Eighteen will give up subcommittee Chairs. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) barely held on to finally end up with a specially designed "Assistant Leader" position to back midterm-demoted House Minority Leader-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Publicly, the CBC appears fine with it; privately, some cringe that Clyburn ultimately got a made-up political crumb.
Founding CBC Member Rep. Charlie Rangel's (D-NY) ethics trial ends up in an embarrassing vote for censure. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) will be next to face the House Ethics Committee gavel. Two others, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL), are in the immediate inquiry pipeline.
There is a larger issue of waning Black political influence nationwide. Much of it is simple partisan calculus: most Black elected officials are staunch Democrats, and there are few either willing or in an able position to leverage relationships on the other side of the aisle. Loss of 19 state legislatures to Republicans, who now wield the ruthless magic wand of redistricting, poses a political life-and-death scenario to the 630 Black and mostly Democratic state legislators spread throughout the fifty states. That also poses a problem to CBC Members enjoying safe majority-Black districts. Some are nervous they could lose seats to a happily gerrymandering GOP.
Even on the Republican side -- and despite major gains for the party on Nov. 2nd -- a chorus of GOP elected officials are calling for the resignation of Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele, the party's first Black chair. Recently, Steele's own political director Gentry Collins resigned in a flashy public retort of Steele's tenure. Republican observers note Steele only has 50 of the 85 votes he'll need for reelection at the party's January Winter Meeting.
And while the majority of lost Chairmanships on Capitol Hill will simply transition into ranking member status, it's not the same as the full power associated with Chair. African American Members were once controlling the composition and flow of legislation; they're now relegated to loud dissenting opinions. While their White Democratic colleagues might be resigned to it, licking wounds from electoral losses, the stakes are higher for the Black Members who represent a larger community in desperate need of real political influence.
The uncomfortable jolt of reality is already spurring bold bids for Ranking Members positions on major Committees as Black Members find their bearing. Outgoing House Government Reform Committee Chair Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), a longtime king of the Brooklyn political machine, wants to stay on as the committee's Ranking Member to the chagrin of leading Democrats - including one corner that needs him the most: the White House. Towns is ready to glove-up and go cage match with an emboldened incoming Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the loquacious center-right Congressman who's promised to blast the Obama Administration with a ceaseless barrage of inquiries, probes and subpoenas.
West Philly political brawler Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) is ready to shake up the antiquated Democratic seniority system by running for ranking member of House Appropriations and directly bumping heads with longtime lawmaker Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA). Jumping from his No. 22 spot is a move certain to rile both Dicks and senior Democrats who've been waiting in line.
The Black Caucus on the Hill is frantically searching for some footing on the new political landscape. Its predominant Democratic make-up creates the usual problems as it enters a Republican-led Congress next year. How they decide to interface with the two new Black Republicans on the block, Rep.-elect Tim Scott (R-SC) and Rep.-elect Allen West (R-FL), is unknown. Still, the newly-elected Chair of the CBC, Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO), is famously known for his ability to reach across the aisle. And Cleaver, who barely managed to beat back a belligerent Republican challenger two weeks ago in a district only 30% Black, won't be expected to play defense for the White House all the time.
Black political power and influence appears somehow strafed and in serious condition since the midterm elections. Even President Barack Obama is not immune as he fends off assaults from both left and right, including a Washington Post column by two prominent Democratic strategists recommending he pass on reelection in 2012. A combination of scandal, Republican electoral tsunamis and lack of coordinated response to the new political climate have left Black politicos trapped in a smoky wilderness of uncertainty. And it could not have come at a worse time for African Americans, near paralyzed by unemployment double the national average, record foreclosure rates and a recession which vaporized a quarter of the Black middle class.
There could also be an opportunity for needed change in political strategy or a realignment of the traditional guard. In reality, it may not be as much of a devastating blow to Black politicians as it is a moment of reflection. Politics, indeed, is an ugly blood sport and the sting of defeat is a regular occupational hazard. After rapid maturation over the past 40 years, course correction is essential as African American politicians evolve. However, we have not arrived, yet, and we cannot act as though we have -- high unemployment numbers, foreclosure rates, disproportionate public health indicators and the inability of many to afford a college education speaks to that. There's good -- but there's still quite a bit of bad and ugly. We're in the kitchen now. This is the heat.