Power Shift

Will African Americans benefit from the Democratic takeover of Congress?

The excitement Democrats felt after winning back the majority in both the House and the Senate during the mid — term elections is still palpable. Voters have spoken, making clear their dissatisfaction with the GOP’s corruption, their handling of the economy, and the escalating violence in Iraq. After a 12 — year elephant stampede, the donkeys are back in power.

Now they must produce. Democrats got an early with their “Six for ’06″ plan, which includes a minimum wage increase, lower interest rates on student loans, and government negotiation of prescription drug prices for Medicare patients. It’s a safe agenda with broad appeal that will bring some economic relief to the middle class and help set the stage for the 2008 presidential election. “You want to put wins on the board, even if they’re small wins. It will show people they’re trying to do some things,” says Michael Fauntroy, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the new book Republicans and the Black Vote (Lynne Reinner Pub, $49.95). “But I would caution anyone from getting overly optimistic that things will radically change immediately. They won’t. The lawmaking process is slow, and slowed even more with a Republican president and close margins in both chambers.”

The good news for African Americans is that several black lawmakers now head powerful House committees and subcommittees, most notably Charles Rangel of New York (Ways and Means) and John Conyers of Michigan (Judiciary). Jim Clyburn of South Carolina is majority whip, the third most powerful House leadership position. They will set the legislative agenda on critical issues for the nation, as well as the minority communities they represent, and address concerns ranging from law enforcement and community development to Social Security and tax reform.

The 43 — member Congressional Black Caucus has gained a modicum of power, but its influence comes with a caveat. Along with the Democratic leadership, the CBC must engage in a fine balancing act if its party is to hold the majority and retain its base for 2008. “With those individuals in power positions, we ought to begin to close the inequity that exists in America,” says Peter Groff, founder and director of the University of Denver’s Center for African American Policy. But, he adds, they’ll have to “balance the needs of the majority as a whole as opposed to moving forward with a very aggressive agenda.

The Democrats’ energy may be better spent crafting an agenda that targets specific unmet needs in minority communities. According to University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, the Six for ’06 plan doesn’t go far enough. “The CBC shouldn’t let the Democratic leadership think that because they rolled out that agenda, it’s sufficient. There ought to be a mobilization behind two or three critical items tailored to benefit African Americans,” he says.

Michigan Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, the recently elected CBC chair, agrees. “We will put forth an agenda that addresses the needs of African Americans and the American people.” The CBC’s initiatives include providing

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