More than two years out, 2008 hopefuls court CBC members

It may be more than two years until the 2008 election, but it’s not too early for some Democratic presidential hopefuls to begin courting the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the hopes of currying favor among African-American voters.

It may be more than two years until the 2008 election, but it’s not too early for some Democratic presidential hopefuls to begin courting the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in the hopes of currying favor among African-American voters.

Three would-be candidates planned to drop in last week on the CBC’s annual legislative conference, a four-day political networking event that draws thousands of politically active African-Americans to the capital.

Although wooing the black vote is a perennial activity for those vying for the Democratic nomination, it is even more important after national Democrats decided last month to schedule an earlier primary date in South Carolina, a state with a large black population. The move was designed specifically to give African-Americans more say in the nominating process.

At the CBC’s conference last week, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 nominee and a candidate now experienced in building support among black leaders, spoke Thursday at an event on minority-owned small businesses.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) attended the conference’s awards dinner and VIP reception Saturday night, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) would have spoken on a panel Thursday had he not been forced to travel overseas at the last minute, his spokesman said.

A yearly event resembling a “church revival,” in the words of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the 36-year-old legislative conference has been de rigueur for Democratic presidential candidates, with some of the most savvy attending two years in advance of the election. Kerry and former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) came in 2002. Then-Vice President Al Gore spoke in 1998, accompanying then-President Clinton, who made an appearance every year of his presidency.

More candidates show up the year before the election, when primary campaigning is in full swing — former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) danced the electric slide there in 1999 — but they often face criticism as johnny-come-latelies.

This year, the trio of would-be candidates hoped that an early appearance would score points with black legislators.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), an early Kerry supporter in 2004, suggested their political calculus was correct.

“It’s an important symbol,” Meeks said. “It’s the beginning of developing relationships. It shows respect to the members of the CBC, that our opinions matter to them. To me, it tells me who would be inclusive.”

Meeks noted that attending the event was a key opportunity for candidates such as Warner who have not served with the CBC in Congress.

Warner and his wife attended the conference’s final dinner with fellow Virginian Rep. Bobby Scott (D). Warner hobnobbed with Reps. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), to whom he recently gave a $10,000 donation through his Forward Together PAC. Cummings represents Baltimore in a state that neighbors Virginia. He is also a former CBC chairman.

In addition to Cummings, Warner has given $10,000 to Scott, $6,000 to Clyburn, $10,000 to Rep. Harold Ford’s (D-Tenn.) Senate bid and $5,000 to African-American congressional candidate Angie Paccione (D-Colo.).

An aide to a senior CBC member praised Warner’s decision to press flesh at the dinner.

“Members are going to remember who was and wasn’t there this year. This is key time [Warner] had to spend without competing with a dozen or so other people vying for the nomination,” the aide said.

CBC Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) agreed.

“There’s no formal effort to get them to come, [but] a lot of them have started looking ahead and showing up a few years out as opposed to running the risk of showing up just in an election year and looking opportunistic.”

Like Warner, Kerry has also donated to CBC members, putting down $1,000 each to Ford, Meeks, Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), and $4,200 to Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), who headed up Kerry’s 2004 effort in Florida.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the presumed Democratic frontrunner, has not spread donations around the CBC, but did give $10,000 to Ford.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean dropped in on several CBC events last week, including the awards dinner and a reception for members from the Carolinas. Dean was the favorite of the CBC in 2003 before the Iowa caucuses, having garnered the most endorsements from the 43-member group.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) came to a CBC reception Thursday at Union Station sponsored by mortgage giant Fannie Mae, as did House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who is locked in a behind-the-scenes battle for majority leader in which backing from CBC members could be pivotal. 

Richardson had been scheduled to speak on a panel Thursday, but had to cancel at the last moment to fly to Sudan, where he helped secure the release of Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Salopek from a Sudanese prison. He sent a statement instead.

His spokesman Jon Goldstein said the governor regretted having missed the event.

“The governor is very aware of the importance of the Black Caucus and certainly will look at attending the conference next year,” Goldstein said.

Richardson served with CBC members for nearly 15 years in the House before being named ambassador to the United Nations in 1997.