Progressive insurgent Jamaal Bowman hopped on a Congressional Black Caucus call in late July to introduce himself to the group.
It could have been awkward. Bowman, who is Black, had recently knocked out Rep. Eliot Engel, a white incumbent backed prominently by the CBC, in a heated New York Democratic primary. But they simply exchanged pleasantries on the call and the CBC moved on to the business of the week.
The next day though, Bowman outraged some members in the Black Caucus after he endorsed another Black progressive challenger — Cori Bush — against longtime Rep. Lacy Clay, a CBC member whose father had been a co-founder of the storied group.
Bowman — along with Bush, who soon triumphed over Clay for the Missouri seat his family has held for decades — represents a new class of Democrats eager to upend deep-rooted dynamics in Congress before ever stepping foot on Capitol Hill.
And with several Black progressives expected to win in November, pressure will rise on the CBC to embrace the leftward swing of its newest additions and their challenge to the broader party establishment. Longtime members have already started to privately fret over just how the CBC will be forced to evolve in the next Congress and how that will shape a group that has long been a central power in House politics.
“The thing about the Black Caucus is that it will adapt,” Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a senior member of the CBC, said in an interview, as he dismissed concerns. “We reflect America. We welcome change, you got to adapt. We’ll continue to do that — to change when it’s necessary.”
The CBC has already undergone seismic changes over the past year, reeling from the deaths of icons John Lewis and Elijah Cummings. And with Clay voted out, the institutional knowledge of the CBC will be further depleted next Congress.
Several members said they are anxious to see what’s next. Seniority and deference to party elders, bedrock values of the 50-year-old caucus, have started to slowly erode. And primary challenges, currently taken as a personal affront to any incumbent, may soon become the norm.
In an interview, Bowman said progressives like himself and Bush are emboldened to take their fight to Congress — including within the CBC if necessary — as the nation faces overlapping crises amid a pandemic, economic devastation and police killings of unarmed Black people.
“The organizing has already been happening. It’s been happening in the streets across this country. That’s why Cori was able to win her election. That organizing is going to continue when we get to Congress,” Bowman said. “When you see Cori’s victory in Missouri, it’s a clear indication that people are demanding something different. … It’s a cry for change, it’s a cry for systemic change. It’s very exciting, and that’s not going away.”
Not everyone is seriously concerned about the prospect of change. CBC staffers say the group is not a monolith — with members from downtown Los Angeles to rural upstate New York — and that any new voices will only amplify the caucus’ influence in Congress. And a senior aide close to the caucus echoed the thoughts of younger members in the group, saying it’s probably time for the CBC to “shake the dust off.”
Others argue no matter who joins the CBC, it will have more power than ever next Congress if Joe Biden wins the White House. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a former CBC chair, is co-chair of the Biden campaign and acts as a key liaison to Capitol Hill.
And House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, is close to the former vice president and nearly single-handedly engineered his comeback this year by securing Biden’s victory in the South Carolina primary.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi also doesn’t make a move without first consulting the CBC — usually through Clyburn — and the caucus isn’t afraid to harness its power as a voting bloc to hold enormous sway over legislation, committee assignments and leadership races. The group played a critical role this summer as Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Caucus looked to the CBC to lead the response to the nationwide uprising against systemic racism and police brutality.
But the tensions that could roil the caucus in the coming months have already started bubbling up this summer. CBC members were angered by Bowman’s decision to back Bush just a day after introducing himself to the caucus, according to multiple lawmakers and aides.
“Jamaal Bowman won in a primary challenge,” his spokesperson, Rebecca Katz, said in a statement when asked about the controversy. “Why wouldn’t he support other primary challengers if they’re making a good case for new leadership and they share a similar agenda to him?”
The CBC has also found itself on the defensive amid rising forces on the left. The caucus faced backlash from progressive groups over its long-standing practice of endorsing white incumbents who’ve been strong allies to the CBC in races against Black primary challengers, including this summer’s fierce battle between Engel and Bowman.
And Ritchie Torres, who won an open New York primary in a safe Democratic seat, blasted the caucus in a Washington Post op-ed for its informal policy barring members from joining both the CBC and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. CBC Chair Karen Bass later expressed openness to Torres joining both caucuses but several CBC members are still annoyed at how Torres used a public op-ed to make his case rather than first privately discussing the issue with his future colleagues.
Next year, the roughly 50-member CBC could usher in a half-dozen or more members, a stark generational shift for an institution that is skewing younger and more liberal. Still, its senior members — who are deeply respected within the broader Democratic Party — argue that the group’s vision won’t be fundamentally altered simply by the jolt of next year’s freshman class.
“I’ve heard some of the newer people saying, ‘I’m going to go in and change the Democratic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus.’ Of course, we’ve heard that many times before,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who has served in the House since 2005.
“I think people forget the CBC is progressive. Its very existence speaks to progressiveness,” Cleaver added. “I don’t think there is any chance that somebody is going to come in and alter the direction of the Black Caucus.”
The ideological gap between some progressives and the broader CBC was made apparent this summer during the debate on policing reform. A draft of the Democrats’ response, largely crafted by Bass, was widely praised by lawmakers in the Capitol, but was dismissed by some outside activists as falling short of the structural overhaul they say is needed to halt police shootings of Black Americans.
Bowman described the Democrats’ bill as “very good policy,” but said “it doesn’t go as far as many of us would like to see.” Bush, the progressive who defeated Clay in Missouri, has said the bill is “too soft” and needs to include language defunding the police.
Bass herself has said she wished the Democratic policing bill passed by the House could be more expansive in certain areas but said she needed to limit the scope in an attempt to seek compromise, telling POLITICO in June: “Personally, I always want to do more. But again, I want to be successful with the legislation.”
Going forward, Bowman said he hopes to see the CBC and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus partner with the Congressional Progressive Caucus to “push back against a system” that has disproportionately undermined people of color.
Many in the older generation of CBC members pride themselves on breaking barriers to make it to Congress, but so can some of the likely incoming lawmakers. Two progressives, Torres and Mondaire Jones, are poised to become the first pair of openly gay Black men elected to Congress after winning primaries in New York City.
Torres and another candidate — Candace Valenzuela, who is running for an open seat in Texas — would become among the first Afro-Latinos in Congress. Long-standing tradition had previously kept lawmakers from joining both the Black and Hispanic caucuses.
Torres, who is all but certain to win a Bronx-based seat in November, ripped the “antiquated rule” in his op-ed. But he struck a less forceful tone in an interview: “I intend to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus and I will seek to join both the CHC and CBC to the extent that I can.”
And he said he didn’t have any plans to push the CBC leftward, even as he personally will advocate for progressive, New Deal-like policies on health care and jobs.
“I’m in no position to judge the progressive bona fides of the Black Caucus,” Torres said.
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.