Rep. Lee abandons CBC bid

Citing a reluctance to press on in a potentially fractious race, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) abandoned her bid to chair the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) next year, paving the way for rival Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) to take the helm of the 43-member Democratic group.

Citing a reluctance to press on in a potentially fractious race, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) abandoned her bid to chair the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) next year, paving the way for rival Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) to take the helm of the 43-member Democratic group.

Lee issued a brief statement describing her reasons for bowing out and indicating that she would pursue the group’s second-ranking position.

“I wanted to avoid a potentially contentious leadership race with my friend and colleague, so I will not be running for CBC chair and I will be running for vice-chair,” she said.

Lee, 60, told Kilpatrick of her decision “shortly before” the August congressional recess, Lee’s spokesman said.

Lee did not rule out seeking the top position when it comes open again in 2009. In a statement of her own, Kilpatrick, 61, praised her one-time rival.

“I respect and admire my friend and colleague Rep. Barbara Lee. I look forward to continuing to work with her and other CBC Members to address the needs and issues of African Americans and people around the world,” she said.

Lee’s decision marks the end of a short but frenzied race for CBC chair. The two women began approaching their colleagues late this spring to solicit support, each seeking 22 commitments, the lowest number required to win. The race typically culminates in a secret-ballot vote not long after the November election.

Kilpatrick was first to attain the magic number, several House Democratic sources said, but Lee was not far behind in commitments. Should she have fought on, she might have turned the tables on Kilpatrick with defections or with the support of newly elected black lawmakers, sources said.

The CBC could grow by as many as three in November with the candidacies of Angie Paccione in Colorado, Keith Ellison in Minnesota and Les Miller in Florida.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), a Kilpatrick supporter, was embroiled yesterday in a tough primary runoff against DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, who was uncommitted in the CBC race.

But Lee chose not to pursue a vote, instead opting to concede and spare the CBC a tumultuous battle during a promising election year for Democrats.

“Congresswoman Lee probably bought a lot of goodwill with her colleagues by not making it a contentious race and freeing them up to focus on other things prior to the November elections,” said a House Democratic aide.  “For Congresswoman Kilpatrick, this will allow her time to focus on framing an agenda for 110th Congress and to work on the Michigan gubernatorial and senate races.”

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) both face competitive re-election races.

By bowing out, Lee averted a potentially uncomfortable situation next month when she and Kilpatrick are slated to be co-chairs of the CBC’s annual legislative conference, primetime for lawmakers to hobnob with other African-American leaders.

Lee’s decision also marks the second uncontested CBC leadership race in a row. The current chairman, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), was elected without opposition in 2004. Prior to that, however, the group struggled through two divisive races, one in which Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) fended off Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and another in which Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) narrowly edged out Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

As Kilpatrick eases into her new role, she will gain newfound prominence as a spokesperson for African-Americans and a mover-and-shaker among House Democrats. Democratic presidential hopefuls will likely vie for her support in the run-up to the 2008 election. Members of her group are the senior Democrats on four House committees, a number that could rise to five if Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) succeeds in his bid to become the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee.

Kilpatrick has yet to give any public indication of what her priorities would be as CBC chair. The current chairman, Watt, has focused his tenure on pursuing policy goals related to Hurricane Katrina and renewing the landmark Voting Rights Act.

Lee will vie to succeed Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) as CBC vice chair, one of five leadership positions in the group. Lee served as CBC whip in this Congress and the last. Kilpatrick is the current second vice-chair. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) rounds out the leadership team as CBC secretary.

A spokesman for Brown said the congresswoman “does not at this point” plan to run to hold on to the vice-chair job, and that she was more interested in pursuing an assignment to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. At least two vice-chairs served consecutive terms: Rep. Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) from 1991 to 1994 and Rep. Alan Wheat (D-Mo.) from 1987 to 1990.