By Christian Morrow, Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier –
While Democrats in the state house railed against Republican measures to limit their voice last week, Black Democrats are upset with their own party for the same reason—no voice on key committees.
Though the November election saw Democrats go from a five-seat majority in the state house to a 22-seat minority, Black Caucus Chair Ron Waters, D-Philadelphia, said that should not have translated into fewer Blacks serving on house committees. “We didn’t lose. All the Democratic losses were White legislators,” he said. “In fact, we actually gained in the Black caucus because Margot Davison took a seat that was Republican for a long time.”
Waters said the most glaring omission is the judiciary committee, which has no African-Americans serving. “There are so many issues, sentencing, incarceration. We make up 12 percent of the general population, but about 60 percent of the prison population,” he said. “And we have no representation at all.”
In addition to the Judiciary Committee, there are also no African-American representatives on the Insurance Committee, the Environment and Energy Committee, the Liquor Control Committee, and the Committee on Committees. Yet other committees, Human Services, Health, have multiple Black representatives.
“If they can pack five African-Americans on the Health Committee, it seems to me that having none on Judiciary could be easily fixed,” said Waters. “There are a lot of people who were very unhappy with the Committee process.”
State Rep. Joseph Preston, D-East Liberty, said losing seats on committees comes with being the minority party. They get 10 seats per committee, the Republicans now get 15. He also said not having any African-Americans among the Party leadership could lead to such omissions.
“But you have to ask for those spots,” said Preston. “You give the leadership your four to five choices, and they try to give you at least three. Sometimes, you don’t get any.”
Preston said with the Black Caucus making up 20 percent of the Democrats in the state house, they should be more involved in the party leadership. “There were divisions in the caucus during the leadership vote and that cost us,” said Preston. “As a result, there are no people of color in the leadership. Still, we actually did gain one chairmanship, even with Ron and Dwight Evans turning down chairs.”
In addition to Preston, who chairs both the Consumer Affairs Committee and the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, the current Black Chairs are Louise Williams Bishop, Children and Youth; James Roebuck, Education; Rosita Youngblood, Gaming Oversight; John Myers, Health; and Thaddeus Kirkland, Tourism and Recreation.
Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, who still serves on four committees but no longer chairs any sub-committees, joined Waters in asking Minority Floor Leader Frank Dermody, D-Cheswick, about the lack of balance with committee assignments.
He said Dermody has promised to address the problem following the (Feb. 1st) special election to fill the late Robert Donatucci’s seat, which his wife Maria is favored to win.
“Frank said he could tweak the process, we’ll see,” said Wheatley. “That the leadership took this in the direction it did, intentionally or not, says a lot about how we are viewed. This is an afterthought. We should not be an afterthought. We’re going to have to work even harder to change that.”