The 'Powerful' Black Caucus
There’s an oft-used Albany phrase that causes me to grind my teeth: “The powerful Black [Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian] Caucus.” My jaw clenches mostly because I believe the journalists and editors who use it do so tongue in cheek.
Formed nearly 50 years ago, the Caucus has grown from its 13 original New York City-based black members to a more geographically and racially diverse group of 43 legislators.
The group formed in an effort to gain influence and exercise clout in the Assembly’s Democratic Conference at a time when every vote counted. Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller also regularly courted the votes of Democrats.
Caucus members went from having a single coveted seat on the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and holding the Assembly majority whip post to heading the WAM, leading the Senate majority and holding various Assembly and Senate standing committee and leadership posts.
Still, despite the Caucus’ increased membership and additional committee and leadership posts, its potency as a bloc within the Democratic Conferences in both houses is somewhat exaggerated. Today’s Caucus has inherent shortcomings, making it weaker than it was at its outset. In the past decade the Caucus has been debilitated by corruption investigations, indictments and convictions.
Last November the Caucus held a much ballyhooed press conference at Baruch College announcing its progressive agenda for New York. Rev. Al Sharpton headlined the event as keynote speaker, and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner attended as an honored guest.
I recall an auditorium packed with lobbyists and union operatives abuzz with rumors of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his acolytes making early morning calls to Rev. Sharpton and legislators in an effort to tamp down dissent. On stage, at least one senior legislator’s smartphone vibrated with a call from Cuomo fixer Joe Percoco.
Buoyed by then Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s win, the Caucus challenged Cuomo and the Legislature to “walk the walk” on a progressive agenda. Its “First 90 days” agenda supported Mayor-elect de Blasio’s UPK/after-school programs tax, the DREAM Act, boosting foundation school aid by $1 billion to meet Campaign for Fiscal Equity obligations, decriminalizing marijuana, raising the age of criminal responsibility, increasing the minimum wage, opposing tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, and restoring member items (euphemistically called “neighborhood initiatives”).
In hindsight, the heavy-handed reaction of Team Cuomo last November was a preview of the present legislative session. Team Cuomo brooks no dissent, and will go out of its way to torpedo anyone who stands in its path. Therefore, none of the Caucus’ budget priorities outlined that day at Baruch were enacted.
Caucus chairman Karim Camara, an assemblyman, admits his disappointment that neither the DREAM Act nor CFE payments were included in the enacted budget. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic about the DREAM Act becoming law by June. He also pointed out that overall school aid to New York City was increased.
Assemblyman Keith Wright, chair of the Housing Committee, took solace in the lifting of the income cap on the Senior Citizen Rent Income Exemption (SCRIE) program from $29,000 to $50,000. “Lifting the SCRIE income limit is very beneficial to [the minority] community,” Wright said.
Oddly, a more influential and effective Senate Democratic Conference would strengthen the Caucus in the Assembly. There was a brief glimpse of the possibility of that dynamic just prior to the Espada coup.
From an individual perspective, and by virtue of leading important standing committees, Caucus members can and do impact budget negotiations. But largely for Assembly members, that influence is tempered by the needs of the majority conference, i.e. Speaker Silver.
But regardless of a well reasoned set of budget priorities, the legislative process wasn’t entirely responsive to the Caucus. And despite the best efforts of Assemblyman Camara, significant influence lay just beyond the “powerful” Caucus’ grasp.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (@SquarePegDem on Twitter) represented the Bronx for eight years