Congressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker

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

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? Want to improve vaccine rates? Ask for this endorsement 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 BookerHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer 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 BassScott: 'There is hope' for police reform bill Biden: Republicans who say Democrats want to defund the police are lying Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia 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 is third CBC member in three weeks to be arrested protesting for voting rights Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund The faith community can help pass a reparations bill 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 SewellDemocratic tensions simmer in House between left, center Alabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Rep. Terri Sewell declines to run for Senate in Alabama 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 ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats Biden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote MORE against Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory 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 ScottBiden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Now is the time to end the subminimum wage for people with disabilities House passes bill to ease standards for age discrimination cases 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 BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News MORE, who has not made any final decision about a third bid for the White House.

Rep. Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - A huge win for Biden, centrist senators Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act MORE (D-Ohio), a former CBC chairwoman, said she hoped her home-state Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTop Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure Schumer's moment to transform transit and deepen democracy Democrats ramp up pressure for infrastructure deal amid time crunch MORE and Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D-Colo.) jumped into what could be a 20-person primary.

Rep. Marc VeaseyMarc Allison VeaseyWe must address the declining rate of startup business launches Ted Cruz accuses Democrats of proposing 'Jim Crow 2.0' voting legislation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 RichmondBiden walks fine line with Fox News Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms Democrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks 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.”