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Progressives Push Back After Congressional Black Caucus Attacks Justice Democrats Over Primary Challenges

"This is a democracy and voters deserve choices."

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) speaks at a rally on October 1, 2018 in Boston. Pressley's primary campaign against then-incumbent Mike Capuano was in the news Friday as members of the CBC were taken to task over their support of her white opponent.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) speaks at a rally on October 1, 2018 in Boston. Pressley's primary campaign against then-incumbent Mike Capuano was in the news Friday as members of the CBC were taken to task over their support of her white opponent. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

This article has been updated with comment from Justice Democrats.

The continuing Democratic Party internal civil war opened a new front Friday after a report from The Hill featured members of the Congressional Black Caucus disparaging progressive groups like Justice Democrats for mounting primary challenges to its members and charging racism—despite the caucus itself supporting white incumbents over black challengers just last year.

"Incumbency and blackness aren't qualifiers. Run on your record. Listen to your constituents."
—Goldie Taylor, The Daily Beast

The conflict comes as Justice Democrats is thus far backing one challenger to an incumbent member of the caucus: Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). But, as The Hill pointed out, the group may have other members in its sights as well like Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), and Anthony Brown (D-Md.). 

The CBC's response to the threat has been to imply Justice Democrats are, at best, racially insensitive.

"It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process," CBC member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) told The Hill.

But Justice Democrats executive director board members Alexandra Rojas, Demond Drummer, and Nasim Thompson, in a statement, disputed that characterization.

"In 2018, Justice Democrats took on the political establishment in New York and Boston by supporting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley—both of whom were taking on more conservative, white male incumbents," the group said. "Notably, the CBC endorsed Pressley's opponent even as she was running in a majority-people of color district. Today every single Justice Democrat in Congress is a person of color."

"Senior members of the Democratic Party can make whatever false claims they want," the trio added, "but it's clear that their bottom line is: no primary challenges."

 

In earlier comments to The Hill, Rojas pointed to Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist and RN from St. Louis who is taking on Clay and gained the party's endorsement, as an indication that the group's priorities are not incompatible with at the least maintaining the caucus' numbers. Further, said Rojas, Justice Democrats want to force their issues in primaries because in safe seat districts that's often the only opportunity for a real debate.

"We are supporting a black woman who is a community organizer who has taken on police brutality in the St. Louis area," Rojas said. "Seventy percent of congressional districts in America have no competitive general election; primaries are often the only places where voters can have a real say."

Goldie Taylor, editor-at-large for The Daily Beast, said she didn't "necessarily disagree" with some of the Justice Democrats endorsements and said that the CBC is taking the wrong approach by attacking progressives instead of making the case to voters. 

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"Incumbency and blackness aren't qualifiers," said Taylor. "Run on your record. Listen to your constituents."

In a series of tweets, activist Shaun King blasted the CBC for what he called its "infuriating" attacks on progressives. In Bush's case, said King, the CBC is being particularly dishonest.

"Cori Bush is a brilliant black woman challenging an establishment Democrat member of the CBC," said King. "If she wins, the CBC doesn't lose numbers. And they know that."

Other observers chimed in as well. In an essay on the dispute, Paste politics editor Shane Ryan said that the real issue at hand appears to be the ideology of both the incumbents and their challengers. 

"Clearly, this is a 'narrative' manufactured from thin air by a group of lawmakers who refuse to endorse progressive legislation and don't want to be held accountable," wrote Ryan.

Rojas recalled that a member of the caucus, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), was himself challenged in a primary years ago by a young politician who would go onto bigger and better things. 

"Barack Obama first ran for Congress in a primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush, a CBC member," Rojas said. "This is a democracy and voters deserve choices."

Astead Herndon, political reporter for The New York Times, noted that the CBC hasn't always endorsed black candidates over white ones, referring to the decision by the caucus last year to support incumbent then-Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) over his primary challenger and eventual winner, now-Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). 

"I'm old enough to remember when the CBC backed a white incumbent (Capuano) over a black challenger (Pressley)," tweeted Herndon. 

In his thread, activist King said that while "the Congressional Black Caucus picked this fight, not us," progressives are ready to fight back. 

"And you will lose," said King. "Be better."

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