Rep. Wilson: African Americans’ issues get little attention in presidential race
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., says the Democratic presidential hopefuls are not giving enough attention to the issues most important to African Americans. | AP

WASHINGTON—On the eve of the third Democratic presidential debate, the co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’s legislative conference said she’s “never satisfied” by the hopefuls’ discussions of issues important to African Americans.

And Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., isn’t the only one.

The five-day conference opened Sept. 11 with moments of silence in memory of the 3,000 people who died in the al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. exactly 18 years ago, and in memory of the 50 victims, so far, of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.

But a top focus is on politics. And even with African-American Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey in the presidential derby, Wilson said the issues have gotten short shrift in the nationally televised debates. The next debate, only with the top 10 hopefuls, will be telecast from Houston on the evening of Sept. 12. Booker and Harris will be in it.

“I’m never satisfied” by the hopefuls’ discussions “because we have so many issues which disproportionately affect us,” Wilson said, answering a question at the confab’s opening press conference.

Those issues include jobs, access to health care, homeownership, income inequality, and criminal justice reform. All of those issues and more will be addressed, one way or another, in seminars during the conference’s five days. One not addressed: The role of unions in raising incomes of people of color.

“I’d like to hear the presidential candidates—all of them, top tier, middle tier, any tier—discuss all these issues,” Wilson said.

The Democratic-run House has addressed them, and more, but politics again gets in the way, she added. “We pass legislation to create jobs and for criminal justice reform—and they go to the Senate to die.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has vowed to deep-six every piece of House-passed legislation. He calls them all “socialism.”

The solution to that logjam? For conference organizers and attendees, it’s vote, vote, vote.

“We will have the opportunity to elect new senators” next November “and have a paradigm shift” on those issues, Wilson adds, even if the presidential hopefuls don’t discuss those issues as much or as often as they should.

That brings up the other key political point conference leaders and participants are pushing: Registering every African American possible to vote, and getting them to the polls next year—and getting all African Americans counted in the U.S. census before that.

“We have to get every single African American—in jobs, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in prisons—registered to vote so we can change this legislative body,” Wilson said of the Senate. Republicans are defending 23 U.S. Senate seats next year, to the Democrats’ 12. The GOP now has 53 seats overall, the Democrats 45, and there are two Democratic-leaning independents.

Exit poll figures from 2016 show a decline in the proportion of African Americans who voted, compared to the prior two presidential cycles. And the U.S. Supreme Court, earlier this year, rejected a GOP census “citizenship” question that would have disproportionately impacted people of color.

“We have to vote, and we have to be counted,” declared David Hinson, CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the conference’s organizer. Wilson said the CBC members are turning their congressional offices into census aid offices since next year’s headcount will be largely online.

Wilson and the legislative conference participants aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with how the Democratic presidential hopefuls are, or are not, addressing issues. CNN hosted a debate devoted solely to the issue of climate change in the first week of September. Another such debate is scheduled for later this month.

The Human Rights Campaign announced last week that it is partnering with CNN to host the first ever presidential candidates’ town hall devoted to LGBTQ issues, to take place on Oct. 10, the eve of National Coming Out Day.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., from left, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., applaud during a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved African people in America, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. | Patrick Semansky / AP

And the New Poor People’s Campaign lobbied the Democratic National Committee for a debate devoted to the problems of poverty. It points out there are 140 million poor or near-poor in the U.S. The panel rejected that demand, so the campaign is taking its drive to the streets again.

The campaign will kick off a nationwide tour, with the ultimate destination in D.C. next June, for a second mass march there. The first events will be Sept. 18 in El Paso.

There’s another group conferees are targeting: African-American women.

Hinson told news media in the run-up to the legislative conference that “Black women—as a group—essentially pick the president of the United States,” due to their high turnout and disproportionate influence in Democratic primaries and caucuses. “We want them to obtain tools to take back to their communities and put them to use.

“There is no more important time than now for our communities because of the current political and economic climate,” Hinson said in that interview.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.