Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker

Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker
© Greg Nash

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate MORE’s (D-Calif.) star power won her several Capitol Hill endorsements this week, but fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) say they’re not quite ready to jump on board her nascent presidential campaign.

While they heaped praise on Harris’s “awesome” campaign rollout — a 20,000-person rally in Oakland, a flood of small-dollar donations and a televised CNN town hall in Iowa — these CBC members said they are torn between backing Harris or another popular African-American Democratic senator expected to launch a White House bid: Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Gabbard, Steyer inch toward making third Democratic debate MORE of New Jersey.

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Harris’s “town hall was great, the buzz, the excitement, $1.6 million raised in 24 hours from 50 states — I thought it was amazing,” new CBC Chairwoman Karen BassKaren Ruth BassKing incites furor with abortion, rape and incest remarks Reuniting families is a critical step in diplomacy with North Korea Democrats warn of Trump trap MORE, who like Harris is a California Democrat, told The Hill. “I am excited, but I have not endorsed anyone yet.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeJackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' Most oppose cash reparations for slavery: poll Poll: Most Americans oppose reparations MORE (D-Texas) said she personally told Harris the campaign launch was “outstanding,” but she is one of at least a dozen CBC members who told The Hill on Wednesday they were not taking sides yet.

Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea Sewell'Raise the Wage Act' would drop the hammer on the most vulnerable workers Ocasio-Cortez distances herself from ex-staffer's controversial tweet Mueller says political campaigns should report offers of foreign assistance MORE (D-Ala.) said she’s “biased” because both she and Harris were members of the same African-American Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. But she, too, is keeping her powder dry.

“I think it’s awesome we have so many amazing choices,” Sewell said.

Harris’s massive rally in Oakland over the weekend evoked “shades of Barack,” according to Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), but he said it would not be easy to choose between Harris and Booker if and when Booker jumps in.

“It would give me pause,” Davis said.

African-American voters are a key constituency in the Democratic Party, and Harris’s and Booker’s courtship of the Black Caucus was on full display at its policy retreat in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday.

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Booker popped into the meeting near the start; Harris, sporting a winter coat and accompanied by two aides, arrived about a half-hour later. Both stayed for about an hour, with Harris milling around for several minutes after the meeting to chat up members.

Sources in the closed-door gathering said neither Harris nor Booker made any pitch to CBC members about their declared or anticipated presidential bids. Both senators served as co-chairs of the annual CBC gala last year.

The Harris-Booker conundrum represents the toughest presidential decision for the CBC since 2008, which pitted CBC ally Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe road not taken: Another FBI failure involving the Clintons surfaces DHS cyber agency to prioritize election security, Chinese threats ABC chose a debate moderator who hates Trump MORE against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocratic governors fizzle in presidential race Obamas reportedly buying Martha's Vineyard mansion Trump has 62 percent disapproval rating in new AP poll MORE, who hoped to make history as the first black president.

Even after Obama upset Clinton by winning the Iowa caucuses, the CBC was evenly divided: 17 CBC members backed Obama, while 16 stood with Clinton, according to a Politico report.

Asked by The Hill about whether she was lobbying CBC members for their endorsements, Harris, 54, replied: “I hope to have everybody’s support.”

As she rode up an elevator after the meeting, Harris then was asked whether congressional endorsements matter in a presidential race. “I’m honored to have the support of people I’ve worked with and my colleagues. I’m certainly honored,” she said.

In a separate interview, Booker, 49, downplayed his appearance at the CBC retreat, saying he regularly attends weekly meetings and is not yet a candidate for president.

“I go to these meetings regularly and participate as much as I can. I’m not running for president” right now, Booker, the former Newark mayor, told The Hill. “This is a great organization that does incredible work. I’m proud of being part of the CBC since the day I walked into Congress.”

Climbing a set of stairs to return to the Senate, Booker sidestepped a question about whether he felt any pressure to quickly launch a presidential bid now that Harris had begun to win congressional endorsements:

“I’m excited for the candidates already out there. It’s really good for the Democratic Party and it’s just a good thing,” Booker said. “I’m excited about Kamala’s candidacy. It’s incredible. It’s historic.”

For some CBC members, regional alliances could play a bigger factor in their endorsement decisions. Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDemocrats: Trump plan could jeopardize 500,000 children's free school meals Lawmakers, press hit the courts for charity tennis event House approves bill raising minimum wage to per hour MORE (D-Va.) said he was waiting to see if the former Democratic governor of his home state, Terry McAuliffe, entered the presidential race before issuing an endorsement. Scott also is a big fan of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Moulton says Biden would make 'fantastic president' MORE, who has not made any final decision about a third bid for the White House.

Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeHarris wins endorsement of former CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge The Hill's Morning Report — DOJ's planned executions stir new debate Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (D-Ohio), a former CBC chairwoman, said she hoped her home-state Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades Dayton mayor assigned extra security following verbal spat with Trump The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch The Hill's Morning Report - Trump hews to NRA on guns and eyes lower taxes The Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries MORE (D-Colo.) jumped into what could be a 20-person primary.

Rep. Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyLawmakers clash after Dem reads letter on House floor calling Trump supporters 'racist,' 'dumb' Democrats face voters clamoring for impeachment Current, former lawmakers celebrate release of new book on Jack Brooks, 'The Meanest Man in Congress' MORE (D-Texas) called Harris “awesome” and “definitely a formidable candidate” but noted that he is close friends with two Texans generating presidential buzz: Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“I’m like one of the regular voters. I’m going to be watching all these debates to assess to see what people are saying and doing,” Veasey said, “but obviously Kamala, Cory, the two Texans — I’ll definitely be watching them.”

Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), the No. 3 Democrat and highest-ranking African-American in Congress, said he won’t endorse anyone until Election Day in his early primary state.

“No, I don’t endorse before the South Carolina primary. You forgot?” he said.

While CBC members raved about Harris, Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHouse Democrat calls for gun control: Cities can ban plastic straws but 'we can't ban assault weapons?' Embattled Juul seeks allies in Washington Democratic lawmakers support Bustos after DCCC resignations MORE (D-La.), the previous chairman of the caucus, told The Hill that Booker’s connection to America’s inner cities could give him a boost among black voters.

“The thing what people miss is Cory’s track record when he was [Newark’s] mayor,” Richmond said. “The fact that he moved into the hood when he got into the City Council. He moved into the violent part of the city when he became mayor. He ran into a building to save someone in a fire — he is just a guy who cares and his track record as a mayor may give him a leg up.”

“Cory has always been connected with the inner city and didn’t run from it as he got more and more successful, and I don’t know if Kamala did or not. I’m more familiar with Cory’s story,” Richmond continued. “But I think that would play very well for people who are still living in the inner cities who are struggling to know you have a guy who actually moved into those inner cities to do something.”

Richmond, who sometimes speaks and meets with Biden, said the former vice president would be the “wild card.”

“The African-American community, they are torn between all three,” Richmond said. “I know that he is taking a very hard look at it … I think he is about 80 percent toward running. So you’re going to see a split in the African-American community based on those three.”