Congressional Black Caucus Chair: Steve Israel ‘Doesn’t Really Value’ Us

The ongoing tension between the CBC and the DCCC gets personal.

National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
June 25, 2014, 7:57 a.m.

Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee Chair­man Steve Is­rael has just over four months left to bring the House back un­der Demo­crat­ic con­trol. That will re­quire the com­mit­tee to turn out loy­al Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic voters and work to di­ver­si­fy the caucus. But along the way, he’s fa­cing back­lash from the chair­wo­man of one of the House con­fer­ence’s most in­flu­en­tial groups: the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus.

Is­rael, Rep. Mar­cia Fudge says, does not rep­res­ent the Demo­crat­ic con­fer­ence in the House well. Fudge wouldn’t com­ment on what spe­cific­ally Is­rael had done, al­though sev­er­al strategists and mem­bers fa­mil­i­ar with the dis­pute poin­ted to an in­cid­ent in 2011. Is­rael had sched­uled a meet­ing with the CBC to ad­dress some of its mem­bers’ con­cerns with the com­mit­tee, but in what his staffers and even Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi de­scribed as a mis­state­ment, told mem­bers: “Can we win the House without the CBC? Yes. Do we want to win the House without the CBC? No.”

Al­though Is­rael apo­lo­gized and patched things up with then-CBC Chair­man Emanuel Cleav­er, the first part of that sen­tence has fol­lowed him ever since. “I have chosen to be­lieve that he made a dumb state­ment, and I think after it fell out of his lips, he prob­ably thought: ‘Oh, my good­ness,’ ” Cleav­er says. “I don’t think that that was ne­ces­sar­ily a re­flec­tion of who he is. However, it’s al­most like these emails: Once you send an email, it’s out there in cy­ber­space etern­ally. And so you know, every now and then when some­body has a bad ex­per­i­ence with the DCCC, at one of our meet­ings some­body will say, ‘Well, yeah, but you re­mem­ber he’s already told us that he doesn’t need us,’ ” Cleav­er said.

But Fudge said that she has many more griev­ances with Is­rael than just his 2011 com­ment, again de­clin­ing to elab­or­ate. “No, I mean, it’s a con­tinu­ing is­sue. It’s a con­tinu­ing is­sue that shows that he doesn’t really value “¦ our caucus. It’s a con­tinu­ing is­sue,” she said.

Fudge also told Roll Call last month she would not sup­port Is­rael in main­tain­ing a lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion with­in the House Demo­crat­ic con­fer­ence.

But in in­ter­views with mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, it ap­pears that Fudge’s opin­ion is largely just her own. Sev­er­al CBC mem­bers de­clined to com­ment for this story or would not speak about the dis­pute on the re­cord. But of the half-dozen who did, none ex­pressed com­plaints about Is­rael. While many dis­cussed is­sues with the DCCC in gen­er­al, a few even praised Is­rael’s lead­er­ship there.

“I don’t have any com­plaints about him as chair. He works hard at it. I see him work­ing hard at it, and I sup­port what he does,” Rep. Wil­li­am Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said, adding that his re­la­tion­ship with the DCCC as a whole is a dif­fer­ent story en­tirely.

“For whatever reas­on, this seems to be per­son­al for Fudge, she just doesn’t like Is­rael,” a Demo­crat­ic strategist fa­mil­i­ar with the dis­pute said.

Dis­putes between the DCCC and the CBC are noth­ing new, however. The two com­mit­tees have been caught in a per­petu­al state of ten­sion for years, a ten­sion that will likely nev­er be fully de­fused. The CBC is a Demo­crat­ic power­house in Con­gress, but its mem­bers hail al­most ex­clus­ively from safe, Demo­crat­ic dis­tricts. As a res­ult, they can have a dif­fi­cult time rais­ing money for their own reelec­tions and are called upon to not only pay their reg­u­lar dues to the DCCC, but to fun­draise for the com­mit­tee as well. And be­cause their seats are so safe, they al­most nev­er see a penny re­turned to their own cam­paign cof­fers. “And you know you can’t move up to lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion and all the oth­er be­ne­fits [without giv­ing money to the DCCC],” Cleav­er said. “Yeah, that cre­ates a prob­lem. And so you know, I think — I mean the sur­prise should be if there were no prob­lems.”

The two com­mit­tees have clashed for years, with the fight­ing hit­ting its zenith in 2006 un­der then-DCCC Chair­man Rahm Emanuel, when mul­tiple mem­bers of the CBC took very pub­lic stands against the cur­rent Chica­go may­or. But that’s not what you’re see­ing now, a Demo­crat­ic strategist fa­mil­i­ar with both groups said.

Still, Cleav­er said, the ten­sions between the two com­mit­tees have been ex­acer­bated since Is­rael took over the DCCC, and par­tic­u­larly since Fudge took over the CBC. There have been a few heated ex­changes dur­ing the past two years, Cleav­er said, in which “things were said that are dif­fi­cult to erase.”

De­fend­ing the CBC is the chair’s job, Cleav­er said, and Fudge is more than his equal to the task. Cleav­er said that his own re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael has im­proved now that he is no longer re­spons­ible for the caucus. “When you’re chair of the CBC, you have to deal with every slight, every is­sue, every mo­ment that people be­lieve something un­just has happened. And you’ve got to de­fend your mem­bers…. I think Mar­cia Fudge is ex­tremely de­fens­ive — as she should be — of the CBC mem­bers,” he said.

Staffers at the DCCC strongly de­fen­ded their boss’s re­cord, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing this elec­tion cycle. “We are con­tinu­ally work­ing with our al­lies at the CBC, [the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus], and [the Con­gres­sion­al Asi­an Pa­cific Amer­ic­an Caucus] to im­prove di­versity in our con­tract­ing and staff­ing, be­cause we want to re­flect our coun­try’s di­versity, both in who we elect to Con­gress and in who works with the DCCC,” Emily Bittner, the DCCC’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al. “As head of the DCCC, Chair­man Is­rael takes these goals ser­i­ously and has hired the DCCC’s first-ever di­versity dir­ect­or, dir­ec­ted staff to work with the CBC and CHC to identi­fy minor­ity-owned vendors, and hired a na­tion­al train­ing dir­ect­or to share our job op­por­tun­it­ies with di­verse com­munit­ies across the coun­try.”

One of the Demo­crat­ic strategists fa­mil­i­ar with both com­mit­tees poin­ted out that the DCCC con­duc­ted a na­tion­al re­search sur­vey fo­cused on Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic voters for the first time this year. The res­ults of that sur­vey, which gauged ef­fect­ive mes­saging for those groups, was made avail­able to Demo­crat­ic mem­bers, in­clud­ing those in the CBC, who could be­ne­fit from the re­search. “What the DCCC is do­ing right now is, I think, head and shoulders above what they’ve done in the past on di­versity and in­creas­ing di­versity on the com­mit­tee and in the races,” the strategist said.

But the group still has a long way to go, all sides ac­know­ledge. Power­PAC+, a Demo­crat­ic fun­drais­ing firm fo­cused on in­creas­ing di­versity, re­leased a sur­vey Wed­nes­day morn­ing show­ing that from 2009-12, more than 98 per­cent of funds spent by the three Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tees (the DCCC, the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee) went to white vendors. Dur­ing that time, the groups used just 14 con­sult­ing firms that were even par­tially minor­ity-owned.

The DCCC says it is work­ing harder this cycle to im­prove those num­bers. The group reached out to the CBC to re­com­mend minor­ity-owned vendors to as­sist in the cam­paign com­mit­tee’s out­reach and help di­ver­si­fy their or­gan­iz­a­tion, one of the strategist’s said. But the CBC nev­er re­spon­ded.

“There have been over­tures by Is­rael to try to work things out with Fudge, and my un­der­stand­ing — it doesn’t seem like there’s a will­ing­ness by her to work things out. I think that’s un­for­tu­nate,” the first strategist said. “What I think is good to see is that she has been in­volved in the DCCC, she’s done a num­ber of events [for them this cycle].”

The strategists also poin­ted to Rep. Donna Ed­wards of Mary­land as a key bridge between the two com­mit­tees, and a smart hire by Is­rael. Ed­wards is a mem­ber of the CBC and was se­lec­ted by Is­rael to chair the DCCC’s Red to Blue pro­gram this cycle, a job that could put her in line to take over the cam­paign com­mit­tee when Is­rael steps down.

Ed­wards dis­missed ques­tions about Fudge’s com­ments as typ­ic­al of the “push and pull” between the DCCC and a vari­ety of caucuses. “We al­ways have dis­cus­sions about what our re­l­at­ive pri­or­it­ies are, what our in­terests are, and mak­ing sure those are shared and com­mon goals…. And so there’s a nat­ur­al push and pull that goes on as we’re try­ing to fig­ure out what our pri­or­it­ies are. And that’s no dif­fer­ent from the CBC, frankly, than it is with any of our oth­er caucuses,” she said. Ed­wards also noted that she has “a good re­la­tion­ship” with Is­rael.

Fudge praised Ed­wards’s work, both in Con­gress and with the DCCC but ad­ded that she’s still doesn’t be­lieve Is­rael is try­ing hard enough. “We ap­pre­ci­ate all the work that Donna does. I still do not be­lieve that we get the re­spect from the chair­man that we should get,” she said.

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied Ed­wards as the chair­wo­man of the DCCC’s Front­line pro­gram. She heads the com­mit­tee’s Red to Blue pro­gram.

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