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CBC lawmakers rip Justice Democrats for targeting black lawmakers for primaries
Congressional Black Caucus members are furious at Justice Democrats, accusing the outside progressive group aligned with firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) of trying to oust lawmakers of color, specifically African American lawmakers.
Justice Democrats is backing primary challengers to eight-term Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a Hispanic Caucus member, and 10-term Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The insurgent group also made noise this year about challenging Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a CBC member seen as the heir apparent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
And CBC leaders are fretting that Justice Democrats may target other black lawmakers in the coming weeks and months, including Reps. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Anthony Brown (D-Md.). Brown said the group has been making calls in his district, actively trying to recruit a challenger to run against him - something that Justice Democrats denies.
"It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a senior CBC member, told The Hill.
"I don't know what that agenda is, but if they want to come after members of the Black Caucus, it's two ways," warned Meeks, the Queens Democratic Party boss who clashed with Justice Democrats in a local district attorney race last month.
Some Democrats are hoping that Ocasio-Cortez, the rabble-rousing freshman with 4.7 million Twitter followers, gets a primary challenge herself in 2020.
Justice Democrats stormed onto the scene last year when one of their little-known handpicked candidates, Ocasio-Cortez, who is Hispanic, unseated then-Rep. Joseph Crowley, the powerful Democratic caucus chairman, in a New York primary.
In a statement, Justice Democrats' executive director, Alexandra Rojas, defended the group's strategy, noting that it has endorsed several candidates of color.
One of them is Cori Bush, a registered nurse and Black Lives Matter activist who is taking on Clay for the second time.
"We are supporting a black woman who is a community organizer who has taken on police brutality in the St. Louis area," Rojas said. "Seventy percent of congressional districts in America have no competitive general election; primaries are often the only places where voters can have a real say.
"Barack Obama first ran for Congress in a primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush, a CBC member," Rojas added. "This is a democracy and voters deserve choices."
Justice Democrats also pointed out that they endorsed Ayanna Pressley, an African American woman, in her successful primary challenge last year against Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano in a Massachusetts district where minorities make up the majority.
This cycle, Justice Democrats is also supporting Bronx educator Jamaal Bowman, who is black, as he takes on House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, and Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old Hispanic woman who is running against her former boss, Cuellar.
The CBC's allegations are "absurd and more about protecting incumbency over democracy," a Justice Democrats source said.
In the last cycle, Justice Democrats backed American Civil Liberties Union activist Chardo Richardson over Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who made history as the first Vietnamese American woman elected to Congress. The group in 2018 also endorsed Bush, who eventually lost to Clay by nearly 20 points in the primary. This week, the group said they will back Bush once again as she gives it another shot in Missouri.
In an interview in the Capitol, Clay said it was absolutely clear that Justice Democrats are targeting lawmakers of color like himself. He and his father, Bill Clay, have represented the district for the past 50 years, and Lacy Clay called the group's actions "insulting" to the intelligence of Missouri voters.
"They are going after the wrong target. Instead of fighting Republicans and defeating Trump and holding on to our majority, they find it convenient to go after their own, which is to me a bunch of B.S.," Clay told The Hill.
He likened Justice Democrats to "Russian trolls of 2016" trying to sow divisions in the Democratic Party.
"It does make you wonder what's going on," added another CBC member, Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.). "Some names that have been mentioned all seem to be people of color, and more so CBC members."
CBC members and some top Democratic aides have questioned who is pulling the strings at Justice Democrats. The group, which is targeting entrenched incumbent Democrats they view as insufficiently progressive and beholden to corporate donors, was founded in the wake of President Trump's surprise 2016 victory by progressive media personalities Cenk Uygur and Kyle Kulinski, along with Bernie Sanders organizers Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent.
Uygur and Kulinski are no longer with the group. And after winning a seat in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez hired Chakrabarti as her chief of staff and Trent as her communications director.
Justice Democrats' spat with the Black Caucus comes amid high racial tensions in the 235-member House Democratic Caucus. Ocasio-Cortez accused Pelosi of singling out "newly elected women of color" when the Speaker scolded lawmakers in a private meeting Wednesday for tweeting at each other.
Pelosi clarified Thursday that her comments were aimed at Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, who had earlier tweeted that the moderate New Democrats and Blue Dog Coalition should be renamed "The New Southern Democrats."
"They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did [during] the 40s," Chakrabarti wrote, later deleting the tweet.
A senior House Democratic aide called it "ironic and funny" that Ocasio-Cortez is accusing Pelosi of attacking women of color, when Justice Democrats is targeting minority lawmakers.
"She's only a woman of color when it's convenient. None of the things she's fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she's a puppet," the top Democratic aide told The Hill in a phone call.
The aide then texted an image of a Goomba puppet from the Super Mario Bros. video game.
"I can't tell you how pissed off people are" about the Justice Democrats, the aide added. "All these CBC members feel like they are under siege. But it's offensive that these elitist white liberals feel like they can undermine the foundation of our party," African American voters.
Trent, Ocasio-Cortez's now-spokesman, declined to comment for this story.
Top CBC member Meeks now is calling for a meeting between CBC leaders and Justice Democrats to find out why they are targeting lawmakers of color.
"We will have to, at some point, sit down and see: Is this something that is directed at members of the Congressional Black Caucus?" Meeks asked. "We're going to sit down with whoever the social Dems are. We have to find out who they are. Who is really running this show. We have to figure that out."
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a CBC member, said it was upsetting that Justice Democrats appeared to be taking aim at so many black lawmakers, especially since they have some of the most progressive voting records in the caucus.
"I think challenging other Democrats in the primary when we're trying to hold on to the majority is wrong unless the person is so far out of bounds, so far away from Democratic orthodoxy, but that's not what's going on here," McEachin told The Hill.
"It's disturbing to see challenges to that many CBC members."
This story was updated at 10:23 a.m.