WASHINGTON — Faced with an uphill struggle in a Republican-run Congress, the new leaders of the largely Democratic Congressional Black Caucus vowed Thursday to press their agenda vigorously and to attempt to broaden the group's appeal among middle-class Americans of all colors.
With the group's effectiveness threatened in the 104th Congress, Payne and other caucus leaders stressed that the issues they hope to champion transcend racial demarcation.
"While we have always represented the interests of the poor and the dispossessed, our constituency also includes middle-class and working people," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), the newly elected caucus chairman.
"So we represent all people," Payne said. "And so I am concerned about a person who's struggling to get their child through college. I am concerned about a mother attempting to work (who) can't find day care which is affordable."
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), the newly elected caucus secretary, said that black members represent districts that are not overwhelmingly black. "Mine is less than 50% and I have people of all income levels."
Payne, Johnson and others also promised not to allow themselves to be steamrollered by the GOP majority without putting up a good fight.
The caucus, like many other "legislative service organizations," faces a GOP-instigated loss of funding for staff and other support services, which could seriously hamper its ability to pursue an agenda. The caucuses draw their financial support from the funds Congress allocates to operate individual congressional offices. The new Republican leadership has vowed to bar members of any caucus from continuing to divert a portion of their operating funds for that purpose.
The Black Caucus will persevere despite the constraints, said freshman Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), who was elected caucus whip. "I would not think that anyone in America should think that the Black Caucus is going to be in a posture of retreating or equivocating on any of the principal positions that this caucus has stood for historically," Fattah said.
Payne, 60, was elected Wednesday night as head of the 41-member caucus, succeeding Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.).
In six years in the House, Payne earned a reputation as a quiet coalition builder. He is known as a diligent worker whose effectiveness stems from a perseverance rather than bare-knuckle confrontations.
"I would not call myself electrifying. But I think there is a lot of dignity in being able to achieve things without having to create rupture," Payne once said, according to Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America: 1994."
Payne, however, is not reluctant to speak his mind. He once called a fellow New Jersey Democrat "a disgrace" for consistently voting with Republicans on social issues.
Payne was a teacher at Newark's Southside High School, where he also coached the track team and founded a fraternity. He continues to keep a high profile in Newark, offering himself as a role model--touting his six-figure salary, for instance, as a part of his spiel about making hard work pay off.
One of his pet issues is combatting illiteracy. And as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Payne strongly supported the Clinton Administration's intervention in Somalia and Haiti.
Other new officers of the caucus are Reps. Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Mich.), vice chair; Earl F. Hilliard (D-Ala.), second vice chair, and William J. Jefferson (D-La.), treasurer.