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Black Caucus Urged to Be More Aggressive

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By. Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent

As Republicans assume power over all three branches of a government with an ultra-conservative legislative agenda, Black America must demand a more forceful Congressional Black Caucus, says former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

“We need to call on the Congressional Black Caucus to get even more aggressive and to show us the way. We need them to say, ‘Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we need for you to do,’” says Jackson, founder of the Atlanta-based American Voters League, an organization that seeks to increase Black voting.
“That’s one of the reasons that they are there, to give us that kind of leadership,” says Jackson, former national development chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“So we need to ask the Congressional Black Caucus to give us a plan—on their level—of how we can support them and the Democratic Caucus in both Houses.”
Jackson is among Black political and civic activists around the country who are now groping for winning strategies to counteract the Republican agenda as Democrats, hit by major losses in the Nov. 5 election, now set their sights for the presidential election of 2004.
But, politicians should not do all the strategizing, says Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP.
“People often times become confused and concerned and unsure about what to do. In this case, when you join an organization, it means you’re working with those who have a plan, who understand the problems,” says Shelton, a Capitol Hill lobbyist. “They need to join some organizations that are working for our issues and concerns in our communities.”
Shelton says he saw the potential impact of grassroots participation during an NAACP legislative mobilization day on Capitol Hill in September.
“Over 700 NAACP people came,” he says. “But, it should have been over three times that many people, three times that many African-American people to say we have an unfinished agenda.”
Despite national efforts to increase Black voter turnout, Republicans handily won back the majority in the Senate and tightened their control of the House.
It may be months before final numbers on Black voter turnout are tallied by the U. S. Census Bureau. But, Black activists are already turning their attention to the future.
Illinois is being touted by Democrats as an example of how to get it right. That’s where Democrats won big, electing Rod Blagojevich as the party’s first Democratic governor in 30 years, retaining control of the Illinois House and capturing control of the Senate.
“It could be a model to duplicate around the country,” says Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). “We had an organized, energized and informed base.”
Grassroots organizing is not new to the Black community. Block-by-block get-out-the-vote efforts, including precinct captains, door-to-door flushers, sound trucks and church vans are traditional and are known to work. But, it will take more money to organize the strategy properly on a larger scale for 2004, says Delisa Saunders, director of civic participation programs for People for the American Way.
“We want to raise the funds so we can expand the program,” says Saunders. “We had contact with voters early on. We touch them. It’s a person-to-person program.”
This year, PFAW focused largely on election protection, provide lawyers at the polls, national hotlines and distributed literature to educate voters on their rights prior to the election.
PFAW also trained ministers on grassroots organizing and get-out-to-vote in a “Take Your Souls to the Polls” campaign. But Saunders says more funding is needed to expand the campaign to target specific pockets of voters.
“We didn’t have a message for women, for youth, for Black males between 18-40,” she says. “We need to start early, we need to go broader, we need greater grassroots fund-raising strategies.”
And new ideas.
Sanders asks: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get the National Baptist Convention to tie in and develop a whole ministry of voter empowerment?”
The convention, which claims a membership of 8.5 million members, is believed to be the nation’s largest African-American organization.
The National Coalition for Black Voter Participation, which worked closely with PFAW, specializes in networking to get out the vote. But, Melanie Campbell, the coalition’s president and CEO, sees the need for better organization.
“[We need to] take time to build upon that unity strategy, try to find ways to not duplicate our efforts, but really maximize our impact by collaborating more,” Campbell says. “It’s a continuous process. There is no end to it because you’re constantly trying to improve upon it.”
The coalition is already taking a step to improve its organizing efforts.
“We’re moving from a campaign-driven strategy to a year-around establishment of affiliates,” Campbell says. “We will have state-based and local-based, year-round affiliates. That’s another part of improving upon our effort. We will have people working year-round for voter mobilization.”
Kirk Clay, co-chair of Black Youth Vote, a program of the coalition, says the youth vote needs to be better organized.
“We need to put a lot of time and energy into youth development,” Clay says. “There really are no mentorship programs like there used to be.”
He points to the 2001 success of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, 31, as the perfect example of a successful candidacy that inspires youth voters.
Other segments of the electorate are being targeted as well. For example, convicted felons, many of whom have the right to vote but do not know it, deserve special attention, says Ludovic Blain, associate director of the Democracy Program for Demos, a national public policy organization.
Blain, who spent months before the elections educating ex-felons on their rights, says confusion is high in Black and Hispanic communities, especially over whether an ex-felon can vote while on probation. The law varies from state to state.
With 3.9 million disenfranchised ex-felons, including 1.4 million Black men, Blain says the fight for the enfranchisement of ex-felons is a key for expanding political clout.
At a panel discussion that examined election results, George E. Curry, Editor-in-Chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and BlackPressUSA.com., says Democrats failed because they did not distinguish themselves from Republicans.
“The problem is this: You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken manure. If you’re going to be a Democrat or a Republican, people need to know what you stand for,” says Curry. “The Democratic Party got their butt kicked because Republicans outsmarted them on strategy, message and they didn’t get away from their base.”
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, says he is familiar with complaints of Democrats taking Black voters for granted but warned against clouding the real issues.
“Our interests are greater than the party’s tactics toward us,” Jackson says. “We must never let our interests be held back while we’re saying, ‘They didn’t reach out for us.’…We’ve got to accept more responsibility. When you do less than your best, you invite hardship upon yourself.”

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