If the African-American Republicans running for U.S. Congress find electoral success this November, the Congressional Black Caucus, long known for its progressive policy agenda, may suddenly become more politically diverse — but only if the newly minted elected officials decide to join. As of now, there are currently no Republicans in the CBC as there are no black Republicans in Congress.
“You’ve got to challenge them,” West said. “I think that someone needs to stand up and say something different.”
“If there are two of us, I think we can start something new,” Hardiman said. “I’ve seen the Congressional Black Caucus — they’re liberal and I’m not.”
Former Rep. JC Watts of Oklahoma, who served from 1995 to 2003, was the last black Republican in Congress. He chose not to join the CBC.
“He made a personal decision,” said Elroy Sailor, who served as deputy chief of staff in the office of JC Watts. “He also made a decision that was reflective of his district.”
Sailor said that representing one’s district is the most important job of a Congressman, regardless of background.
“Number one is, I think when a member comes to Congress, whether they’re black, white, red, yellow or brown — regardless of their ethnicity — they have an obligation to represent their district,” Sailor said.
Like the districts sought by West and Hardiman, the swath of south-central Oklahoma that Watts represented wasn’t a minority-majority area; most of his constituents were white.
In this way, as well as through their ideologies, black Republicans could bring a different perspective to the caucus — one that might, as West suggests, help moderate discussion.
“I think that they could begin to set a whole different kind of tone within the Congressional Black Caucus,” said Dean Nelson, vice chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a black conservative group.
On some issues, such as in fighting crime and poverty or promoting inner-city education, black Republicans may even find common ground with the CBC.
“The black republicans who have a chance of winning share a lot of the same concerns for the black community,” said DJ Jordan, an African American staffer for a Republican member of Congress. “They just have different solutions for how to address those concerns.”
But there’s no doubt that African American Republicans would diverge from the caucus on many matters.
“Over the years, the CBC has grown more liberal, and many of the black Republican candidates will have a problem with many of the policies that the Caucus promotes,” Jordan said.
An alternate solution to joining the CBC, especially if more than one black Republican is elected, might be to start a new caucus. Hispanic Republicans took that road in 2003 when they formed the Congressional Hispanic Conference, writing at the time that “apparently Democrats believe that they alone should get to decide what a ‘Hispanic’ should be.”
The black community is internally diverse, too.
“Black America was never a monolithic looking, thinking or acting community,” said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. “The Congressional Black Caucus, while I think the intent was genuine when it was created, truth be told, it has become very much a partisan organization.”
Ultimately, though, whatever the decision that future black Republicans make, Sailor said the experience of JC Watts shows that caucus membership is secondary to legislative accomplishment. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a member of the CBC, Watts worked with its members on several pieces of legislation, such as the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“JC’s policies transcended politics,” Sailor said. “When JC announced that he was retiring, there were many members of the CBC that asked him to stay.”
Sailor’s advice to aspiring Congressmen, regardless of race, is simple: pray on the decision, pick the caucus that reflects the district and then buckle down and actually do something.
“I think what’s important is, at the end of the day, what have you delivered to your constituents?” Sailor said. “You can’t run on belonging to a caucus.”
With a record number of black Republicans running for Congress this cycle, there is a real possibility that one or more could be elected this November.