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As a white liberal running in a majority African American district, Tennessee Democrat Stephen I. Cohen made a novel pledge on the campaign trail last year: If elected, he would seek to become the first white member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Now that he’s a freshman in Congress, Cohen has changed his plans. He said he has dropped his bid after several current and former caucus members made it clear to him that whites need not apply.
Cohen said he became convinced that joining the caucus would be “a social faux pas” after seeing news reports that former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., D-Mo., a co-founder of the caucus, had circulated a memo telling members it was “critical” that the group remain “exclusively African-American.”
Other members, including the new chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and Clay’s son, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., agreed.
The bylaws of the caucus do not make race a prerequisite for membership, a House aide said, but no non-black member has ever joined.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who is white, tried in 1975 when he was a sophomore representative and the group was only six years old.
“Half my Democratic constituents were African American. I felt we had interests in common as far as helping people in poverty,” Stark said. “They had a vote, and I lost. They said the issue was that I was white, and they felt it was important that the group be limited to African Americans.”
Cohen won his seat in the 60 percent black district as the only white candidate in a crowded primary field. If he faces a primary challenge next year from a black candidate, as expected, some Black Caucus members may work to defeat him.
A similar situation arose in 2004 after redistricting added more black voters to the Houston district of former Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas.
Although House tradition discourages members of the same party from working against each other, about a dozen black lawmakers contributed to Bell’s opponent, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, the eventual victor. Even Bell’s Houston neighbor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, campaigned against him.
One black member who criticized his colleagues for sandbagging Bell was Cohen’s predecessor, Harold Ford.
“You have an incumbent, and you don’t support an incumbent? It was inappropriate,” Ford told Congressional Quarterly in 2004.
Cohen has won high marks for hiring African Americans. A majority of his staff is African American, he said, including his chief of staff.
(Posted on January 23, 2007)