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Black caucus says no special relationship to Obama

Erica Werner and Ben Evans

WASHINGTON — Black leaders in Congress don’t expect to have an especially close relationship with President-elect Barack Obama.

That attitude reflects in part Obama’s nontraditional path to the presidency: He didn’t pass through the crucible of civil rights and form alliances there.

As if trying to make the point, Congressional Black Caucus members announcing their new leadership at a news conference last Thursday didn’t even mention Obama’s name until asked by reporters.

The all-Democratic, 43-member group has had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the president-elect, who rarely participated in caucus activities during the four years he represented Illinois in the Senate. Some black lawmakers wished he had been more involved.

Obama’s historic election caused elation among black Americans, but caucus members disputed suggestions that their relationship with him would be anything out of the ordinary.

“We’ve never anticipated any special regard or special relationship from President-elect Obama,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said after accepting the chairman’s gavel from Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich.

“We all are members of Congress,” Lee said. “We have many caucuses in this Congress. All of our caucuses have a specific agenda.

“He has an agenda and we all have to come together to make sure that there becomes a consensus agenda,” she added.

Asked whether they planned to meet with Obama, caucus members said that they would, although nothing was scheduled as yet.

“We seek to meet with every president,” added Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. “Each time there’s a new president, we always seek to establish an early-on meeting.”

In the one loss of his political career, Obama challenged a member of the caucus, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and was crushed in the primary in 2000. Obama conspicuously avoided endorsing Kilpatrick in a tough primary battle this year as her son, Kwame, was embroiled in a scandal over his conduct as mayor of Detroit.

Many caucus members endorsed Obama’s Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, before Obama’s campaign gained momentum. Some, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., switched their support to Obama under pressure from their constituents.

Obama ended up winning 95 percent of the black vote — a higher percentage than caucus members can always claim.

“There are admittedly tensions between some of the younger and older black leaders because of the way some of the younger leaders challenged the older leaders for power,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist.

“Obama doesn’t enjoy a close personal relationship with members of the Congressional Black Caucus,” she said.

Both sides are taking care to emphasize that Obama will be the president for all Americans, not just black Americans, analysts said.

Artur Davis, a centrist Democrat and caucus member from Alabama who is close to Obama, said he doesn’t sense tension. He said black lawmakers simply understand that Obama is a new breed of politician who transcends race.

“I think that’s something that’s understood by the majority of the caucus,” Davis said. “Barack Obama is not a black president of the United States. He’s a president of the United States who happens to be black.”

William Jelani Cobb, a Spelman College history professor who’s writing a book on Obama, contended that the caucus has “tried to minimize the extent to which Obama’s emergence has changed the nature of their position.”

“A good bit of the old politics, the old positioning, was as brokerage. They have people who can be the brokers, the middle person, between the Democratic Party — largely the white Democratic Party — and the black voting base,” Cobb said. “Obama is the first president who doesn’t need them for that.”

Nonetheless, both sides will rely on each other — Obama to get his agenda through the House, and black House members to get theirs past his desk.

Senior Black Caucus members will retain some important positions in Congress, including Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

(Associated Press)