Caucus wielding power in Legislature

Published 11:51 pm Sunday, November 25, 2007

JACKSON (AP) — Deskmates were organized by county when Ed Blackmon was voted into the state House in a 1979 special election.

Instead of being assigned next to his delegation, the young lawyer from Canton was forced to sit next to other black lawmakers from Holmes and Hinds counties.

He didn’t know why until the end of the session, when a white Madison County representative apologized.

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‘‘He wasn’t a bad guy, but he didn’t want to sit with me,’’ Blackmon said. ‘‘He grew up here. We all grew up here, and we were all victims of a system that kept races apart.’’

That year, the Legislative Black Caucus was formed to embrace the 17 blacks elected to the Legislature for the term that began in 1980.

They finally had presence but still no power — shut out of leadership roles on key committees and participation in the budgeting process.

Still, it was a vast improvement from little more than a dozen years earlier, when former state Rep. Robert Clark, the first black to serve in the Legislature since Reconstruction, was elected.

Today, at 50 members, Mississippi’s Legislative Black Caucus is a formidable force, second in the nation only to Georgia’s 53-member caucus.

When the caucus votes as a bloc, it can’t be counted out because the support can mean the difference between whether public policy is passed, watered down or halted.

‘‘You have a group on this side … not so much Republicans or Democrats but conservatives and liberals,’’ said state Rep. Reecy Dickson, who chairs the caucus.

‘‘Then you have the Black Caucus right in the center, and that’s what makes the Black Caucus as powerful as they are at the moment.’’

Dickson was elected in 1993 after approval of a major redistricting that caused the organization’s numbers to swell, she said.

‘‘Now, the caucus is in a bargaining position they have never been in before, and they could have a major impact on the process,’’ said Leslie Burl McLemore, a political science professor at Jackson State University.

In October, the caucus’ power could be seen in the state House speaker’s race.

The majority of members threw their weight behind incumbent Billy McCoy, giving him almost two-thirds of the 62 votes he needs to win another term.

Similarly, full funding of the state’s education program couldn’t have passed in the 2007 session without the support of the caucus, state Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said.

‘‘We stood our position over those folks who didn’t want to back it,’’ Flaggs said.

It’s the ‘‘human issues,’’ or the factors that affect people in their day-to-day lives, on which the caucus tends to show solidarity, Dickson said.

‘‘Others, we are at random,’’ she said.

This year, the organization picked up three seats — Districts 4 and 36 in the state Senate and District 71 in the state House, though a revote will be conducted in four precincts in that district.

Democrat Adrienne Wooten took the seat, but incumbent and Republican John Reeves filed a challenge citing voting irregularities.

‘‘Right now, the most promising resource (the caucus has) is experience,’’ said state Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point.

Many caucus members, such as state Sen. Hillman Frazier and state Rep. Alyce Clark, both Democrats from Jackson, have tenures upward of 20 years in the Legislature.

Traditionally, senior lawmakers have pull in their respective chambers, as they are more likely to chair key committees.

Throughout the country, state black caucuses are important because they bring focus to people who historically have been slighted, said Al Williams, chairman of Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus.

‘‘Many of those are disproportionately people of color,’’ said Williams, a Democratic state representative from Midway.

The problem Mississippi’s organization is facing is translating power into public policy that will help constituents, Dickson said.

‘‘We can always give cooperation, but rarely can we get cooperation on the issues that our people are facing,’’ she said.

Education, job development and health disparities are among some of the issues the caucus will be focusing on in the next session, Dickson believes.

‘‘We try to get support on the floor, but then we have to go back to our communities — depressed communities — and deal with hopelessness, crime, unemployment,’’ she said.

‘‘Mississippi as a whole would be better if we addressed these things.’’


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger,