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Minority Caucuses Seek Capitol Hill Bond


MAY 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON – First there were the bonding exercises, in which participants shared ethnic pride.

Next came a theatrical one-woman show featuring an eclectic roster of characters representing America's changing demographic landscape.

Finally, for anyone still not down with the program, a troupe of Latino, Asian and African-American slam poets delivered a rapid-fire dose of street wisdom on the state of the American dream.

It was nothing like a typical Congressional meeting – and that is just what organizers wanted.

Members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific Caucuses slipped away last month to a resort in Northern Virginia for their first tricaucus retreat. The three-day event was an attempt to create an atmosphere of understanding among groups that have often felt pitted against one another for resources and recognition.

Organizers took pains to convene the gathering under the radar of the news media, "so people could open up and get real without worrying how it would play," a caucus staff member said.

The "getting real" entailed designing a policy agenda focused on education, economic empowerment, health care and immigration that members of the groups hope will begin a new era in coalition politics.

The coalition is already testing its collective bargaining power. One recent success involved the farm bill President Bush signed this week. The black and Hispanic caucuses united on the nutrition section, or title, of the bill to get expanded food stamp subsidies, which the black members wanted, and to get the right to food stamps restored for legal immigrants, a priority for Hispanic members.

"Without a strong and comprehensive nutrition title that addresses the specific interests of both caucuses, there is little reason for many of our caucus members to vote in favor of a farm bill," read a letter from the two groups to the Senate Agriculture Committee. The expanded provisions were adopted.

The coalition also worked – less successfully – on provisions it sought in the reauthorization of the welfare bill, which the House passed on Thursday. Among the black caucus's priorities were more money for child care, post-vocational training and waiving mandatory work requirements for grandparent caretakers.

Chief concerns for the Hispanic and Asian caucuses were again restoring benefits to legal immigrants, which were taken away in 1996, and including English-language instruction and translation services in job training programs. Those provisions were in the Democratic alternative, which was defeated.

The developing agenda of the groups is an effort to realize strength in numbers. The black caucus has 38 members. The Hispanic caucus has 18. While only 9 members of Asian background are in the Asian Pacific caucus, it has dozens of "affiliated members" in Congress with an interest in Asian-related issues.

"Add it all up and that's a tremendous amount of clout that we need to be using more effectively," said Representative Silvestre Reyes, the Texas Democrat who is chairman of the Hispanic caucus.

The combined caucus members are all Democrats, except for two Republicans who are affiliated members of the Asian caucus. There are black and Latino House Republicans who are not part of either caucus.

But for Democratic loyalists, faced with passing legislation in a Republican-controlled administration and an election year in which several races could hinge on cross-ethnic support, catch phrases like "Can't we all just get along?" carry a sense of political urgency.

"We really have much in common when it comes to our goals," said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who has made coalition building part of her platform as chairwoman of the black caucus.

Caucus members are looking to Texas, the home state of President Bush, for a shining example of how coalition building can work.

Ron Kirk, a former two-term mayor of Dallas who is black, won the Democratic nomination to run for the Senate largely because of the backing of the Democratic candidate for governor, Tony Sanchez, who urged voters to help "make history" by nominating Mr. Kirk and creating a brown-black dream ticket.

Much of the thorny space between being partners and adversaries lies in the competition for resources. In the early 1990's, Hispanic legislators began pushing for money to be set aside for "Hispanic serving institutions," like the University of Texas at El Paso and California State University at Los Angeles, which serve predominantly Latino populations.

Initially, several black legislators fought the proposals, fearing that any financing for Hispanic institutions would come at the expense of historically black universities. In 1998, after years of wrangling, the groups created financing for the Hispanic colleges without taking from the black colleges.

A potentially more contentious issue among the groups is redistricting. Latinos, now at 12.5 percent of the population according to the 2000 census, are expected to overtake African-Americans in several years.

In a few districts the shift is already apparent. In 1990, the area of Los Angeles represented by a black caucus member, Maxine Waters, was 42 percent black and 43 percent Latino. Today the black population has dipped to 35 percent and the Latino population has jumped to 54 percent, according to census figures.

The Latino population in Ms. Johnson's district in Texas has grown to 35 percent from 18 percent in the same period. Other districts in high-growth regions are undergoing similar changes.

Many of the areas with booming Latino populations also have growing Asian populations. As districts are redrawn to strengthen representation for Latinos and Asians, many black politicians fear they will lose hard-won political ground.

"Given the commonality of purpose, one might think coalition building would be easy and natural, but experience suggests it's not necessarily so," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "What you find is that Hispanics and Asians sometimes feel that African-Americans are sidelining their issues with the same kind of rhetoric and justifications that whites used to use against blacks."

In January a group of Latino businessmen broke away from the National Minority Auto Dealers Association to form their own group, the National Hispanic Auto Dealers Association, asserting that the older group was controlled by African-Americans who were trying to shut them out. The move has generated friction, even within the Latino business community. Opponents of the split say the divisive tactic could hurt both groups.

"What we have to realize is that it's not about a competition for crumbs," said Representative Xavier Becerra, Democrat of California. "It's about elevating the overall status and resources of programs so that they serve everyone."

Mr. Becerra, a former chairman of the Hispanic caucus who is also an affiliate member of the Asian Pacific caucus, added, "If the leadership is not willing to talk candidly and work through the tough issues, we can't expect people in the communities to work things out."

The tough issues were front and center at the retreat, at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, albeit in the form of entertainment. Audience members sat rapt as Sarah Jones, a socially conscious writer and actress – the hip-hop generation's Anna Deavere Smith – slipped in and out of accents to portray characters ranging from a Mexican-American labor organizer to a new immigrant from Haiti who scolded listeners: "God bless America, but not because of you. Remember, your ancestors came here once, too."

Beau Sia, a Chinese-American slam poet from Oklahoma, raised eyebrows with his confrontational number, "The Asians are coming":

We are everywhere.

We are programming your Web sites,

Making your executives look smart

And getting into your schools – for free,

And you know what?

It's only gonna get bigger.

For now, leaders of the fledgling tricaucus coalition are playing down their differences in hopes of moving forward with their agenda. "We've had enough of wedge issues," said Representative David Wu, the Oregon Democrat who is chairman of the Asian Pacific caucus. "Right now we need to emphasize the common ground."

The groups have appointed subcommittees on core issues, and they will meet regularly to update one another. The three caucuses have agreed to make the retreat a yearly event.

At the final session of the first retreat, the inspirational singer Oleta Adams served up what the printed program termed "food for the mind, body and soul." While audience members listened intently, Ms. Adams soulfully crooned songs that cut to the heart of members' respective aspirations and anxieties, including "Everything Must Change" and "This is My Country."

As members of the three caucuses feel their way toward the future, they say they are hopeful that they can find a comfortable space between two sometimes seemingly competing ideas: making gains for their separate constituencies while advancing toward a shared higher ground.

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