Banding Together Under Caucuses to Maximize Political Power
The Only Ones
While attending college in Iowa, I worked as legislative assistant to an African-American state legislator. Save for a cook, a gentleman who shined shoes, a custodian, and another clerk, we were the only people of color in the entire Capitol building.
State Representative Wayne Ford had grown up poor and illiterate, on the toughest streets of Washington, D.C. and battled his way to a master’s degree, self-sufficiency, and ultimately a force of leadership in America’s heartland. It was this fighting spirit he would need in a lonely place where one was often met with jaw-dropping ignorance about the realities poor people face in digging themselves out of poverty. Representative Ford, a mentor to me, was very effective in getting help from allies to stop bad things from happening, and to make really good things happen.
Still, the lack of representation of people of color, and of vulnerable communities, was stunning. And, there were two ways to approach that—first, elect more people from these communities to represent them and, second, leverage the one or two there through connections to a larger, more powerful, better resourced network. Iowa did both. It elected more people of color to the legislature, and those legislators got involved with our national caucus.
The Role of Caucuses from a State Perspective
Caucuses allow a group of legislators to organize around shared interests, identities, and/or goals. Caucuses are an efficient way to stay abreast of issues, and to pool resources such as staff. Many legislators rely on part-time staff or volunteers at the same time they are expected to make thousands of decisions. Yet, it is impossible to be an expert on all of those things. Thus, the ability to have staff that can filter information, highlight issues they know are important to the member, analyze legislation, and give feedback is critical to saving time and helping the member to be more effective.
A caucus allows a legislator to be more strategic. When acting a voting bloc, a caucus wields tremendous negotiating power. It can crush legislation, allow it to sail through, or make significant changes. It amplifies the voices of minorities and serves as a bridge where folks simply had no voice inside the capitol before the legislator got there.
For an individual legislator, a caucus can provide mentorship and help newer lawmakers learn the rules of the game. Some rules are written but many are not, so mentorship can save time, money, heartache, and help the legislator to be more successful, sooner. This is particularly important for those with term limits. When legislators are limited to serving only six or eight years, they have to be productive right away.
The reality is, in politics, you can’t do anything by yourself. Politics is the ultimate team sport. So, developing a high-functioning caucus gives the advantage needed for a team sport of this magnitude.
The Role of Caucuses from a National Perspective
Legislators can learn about colleagues in other parts of the country facing similar challenges. National caucuses provide structure to find legislation with more research and evidence behind it. The legislation may hold fewer unintended consequences, offer fewer loopholes, and stand up better to legal challenges. In addition, sometimes colleagues have similar legislation in another state but have found a more effective way to message to different audiences and get buy in. It’s not necessarily true that the best ideas win. It often comes down to how something is delivered and who supports it (or not).
Another dynamic that crops up with being the “only one” is that these legislators are often expected to represent everyone of that same racial or ethnic group regardless of where they actually live, because constituents do not place a high value on political boundaries. This is the first time someone who looks like them is in the halls of power. Even if the legislator has very few of his/her racial or ethnic group living in the district, s/he may still have to get up to speed quickly on issues affecting that group and the best ideas for improving their quality of life.
National caucuses can provide professional development. The old adage is true: leaders are not born; they’re made. They lead committees and vet issues, and work through solutions. They hear from the country’s top experts. They become experts themselves. They develop skills. They become equipped for battle.
Finally, there is certainly a psychological benefit that one is not alone and has support from others who know what they are going through. There might be only one or two legislators of a particular racial or ethnic group in an entire state, so camaraderie helps to manage stress.
Creating equity is difficult and messy. All of us care about people—deeply—or else we would not do the work we do, which is to try and figure out how to make the world more fair. But, that profound sense of caring is what also leaves us vulnerable to burnout and discouragement when people are at their worst. So, for many of the legislators, the hugs and handshakes, the friendships and bonds they form in caucuses—that’s what fortifies them for the long game.***
- In my country, we are not allowed to legally recognize minorities, so how can we form a caucus?
A: Caucuses are self-declared. A person self-identifies as something and privately talks to others to gauge their interest. We have seen caucuses in some states with only two African Americans one year, who help new people get elected, and grow to four or five the next legislative cycle. We have also seen legislators from different races or ethnicities team up to form one caucus. If the state doesn’t provide monies to the caucus (even if you come up with an interest- or philosophically based caucus), then there are outside funders that can provide financial support for programs, development, and staff.
- What if there aren’t enough of us in our region to form a caucus?
A: National caucuses are a great option. Also, consider forming a caucus with different levels of government (local, state, federal, or tribal).
- How do we move our agenda with our colleagues when we are in such the minority, and they are not listening?
A: Sometimes, you have to go directly to the people and educate them about your issue. Then, you mobilize them to call, write, and meet with their legislators. Thus, you build the political will of the officials by first organizing voters. In your outreach to them, use the cultural levers that make sense for your target cultural group, simplify your message, and educate them. For example, use radio, public service announcements, or ethnic newspapers. Build a coalition with faith leaders, radio Deejays, moviemakers, etc. to get them all on message about your points.
- What do we do about these extremist groups who are getting racist laws passed in areas where people don’t live around minorities?
A: I can’t overemphasize the importance of humanizing people. It’s a lot easier to vote against someone when you don’t know them, and don’t know their story, versus when you can see that they’re just like you. So, having in-person conversations is important. But, you want to use your time wisely and target people who are actually persuadable, not the leaders of the racist movement. It’s just like running a campaign and knocking on doors. You want to find people who are persuadable and go after them.
- Will the demographic shifts have any impact on the power structure?
A: I don’t believe increased numbers will naturally or automatically translate into increased political power. There is always a backlash from those in power when they feel threatened in losing the status quo. Also, there is a lot of confusion and distraction when society focuses on individual racist behavior. We have to be focused on dismantling structural racism, which is foundational to the country’s power levers and affects every institution from housing, to transportation, banking, education, and health, etc. And, the only way to do that will be by people of color uniting with white allies. If we fail to come together, we could very well see apartheid in the United States. But, I am hopeful that others also recognize the possibility and commit now to one another. I certainly promise to do my part.
Ajenai Clemmons is the Policy Director at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.