Congressional Black Caucus Chair: Steve Israel 'Doesn't Really Value' Us

The ongoing tension between the CBC and the DCCC gets personal.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel has just over four months left to bring the House back under Democratic control. That will require the committee to turn out loyal African-American and Hispanic voters and work to diversify the caucus. But along the way, he's facing backlash from the chairwoman of one of the House conference's most influential groups: the Congressional Black Caucus.

Israel, Rep. Marcia Fudge says, does not represent the Democratic conference in the House well. Fudge wouldn't comment on what specifically Israel had done, although several strategists and members familiar with the dispute pointed to an incident in 2011. Israel had scheduled a meeting with the CBC to address some of its members' concerns with the committee, but in what his staffers and even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi described as a misstatement, told members: "Can we win the House without the CBC? Yes. Do we want to win the House without the CBC? No."

Although Israel apologized and patched things up with then-CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver, the first part of that sentence has followed him ever since. "I have chosen to believe that he made a dumb statement, and I think after it fell out of his lips, he probably thought: 'Oh, my goodness,' " Cleaver says. "I don't think that that was necessarily a reflection of who he is. However, it's almost like these emails: Once you send an email, it's out there in cyberspace eternally. And so you know, every now and then when somebody has a bad experience with the DCCC, at one of our meetings somebody will say, 'Well, yeah, but you remember he's already told us that he doesn't need us,' " Cleaver said.

But Fudge said that she has many more grievances with Israel than just his 2011 comment, again declining to elaborate. "No, I mean, it's a continuing issue. It's a continuing issue that shows that he doesn't really value "¦ our caucus. It's a continuing issue," she said.

Fudge also told Roll Call last month she would not support Israel in maintaining a leadership position within the House Democratic conference.

But in interviews with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, it appears that Fudge's opinion is largely just her own. Several CBC members declined to comment for this story or would not speak about the dispute on the record. But of the half-dozen who did, none expressed complaints about Israel. While many discussed issues with the DCCC in general, a few even praised Israel's leadership there.

"I don't have any complaints about him as chair. He works hard at it. I see him working hard at it, and I support what he does," Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said, adding that his relationship with the DCCC as a whole is a different story entirely.

"For whatever reason, this seems to be personal for Fudge, she just doesn't like Israel," a Democratic strategist familiar with the dispute said.

Disputes between the DCCC and the CBC are nothing new, however. The two committees have been caught in a perpetual state of tension for years, a tension that will likely never be fully defused. The CBC is a Democratic powerhouse in Congress, but its members hail almost exclusively from safe, Democratic districts. As a result, they can have a difficult time raising money for their own reelections and are called upon to not only pay their regular dues to the DCCC, but to fundraise for the committee as well. And because their seats are so safe, they almost never see a penny returned to their own campaign coffers. "And you know you can't move up to leadership position and all the other benefits [without giving money to the DCCC]," Cleaver said. "Yeah, that creates a problem. And so you know, I think — I mean the surprise should be if there were no problems."

The two committees have clashed for years, with the fighting hitting its zenith in 2006 under then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel, when multiple members of the CBC took very public stands against the current Chicago mayor. But that's not what you're seeing now, a Democratic strategist familiar with both groups said.

Still, Cleaver said, the tensions between the two committees have been exacerbated since Israel took over the DCCC, and particularly since Fudge took over the CBC. There have been a few heated exchanges during the past two years, Cleaver said, in which "things were said that are difficult to erase."

Defending the CBC is the chair's job, Cleaver said, and Fudge is more than his equal to the task. Cleaver said that his own relationship with Israel has improved now that he is no longer responsible for the caucus. "When you're chair of the CBC, you have to deal with every slight, every issue, every moment that people believe something unjust has happened. And you've got to defend your members.... I think Marcia Fudge is extremely defensive — as she should be — of the CBC members," he said.

Staffers at the DCCC strongly defended their boss's record, particularly during this election cycle. "We are continually working with our allies at the CBC, [the Congressional Hispanic Caucus], and [the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus] to improve diversity in our contracting and staffing, because we want to reflect our country's diversity, both in who we elect to Congress and in who works with the DCCC," Emily Bittner, the DCCC's communications director, said in a statement to National Journal. "As head of the DCCC, Chairman Israel takes these goals seriously and has hired the DCCC's first-ever diversity director, directed staff to work with the CBC and CHC to identify minority-owned vendors, and hired a national training director to share our job opportunities with diverse communities across the country."

One of the Democratic strategists familiar with both committees pointed out that the DCCC conducted a national research survey focused on African-American and Hispanic voters for the first time this year. The results of that survey, which gauged effective messaging for those groups, was made available to Democratic members, including those in the CBC, who could benefit from the research. "What the DCCC is doing right now is, I think, head and shoulders above what they've done in the past on diversity and increasing diversity on the committee and in the races," the strategist said.

But the group still has a long way to go, all sides acknowledge. PowerPAC+, a Democratic fundraising firm focused on increasing diversity, released a survey Wednesday morning showing that from 2009-12, more than 98 percent of funds spent by the three Democratic committees (the DCCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic National Committee) went to white vendors. During that time, the groups used just 14 consulting firms that were even partially minority-owned.

The DCCC says it is working harder this cycle to improve those numbers. The group reached out to the CBC to recommend minority-owned vendors to assist in the campaign committee's outreach and help diversify their organization, one of the strategist's said. But the CBC never responded.

"There have been overtures by Israel to try to work things out with Fudge, and my understanding — it doesn't seem like there's a willingness by her to work things out. I think that's unfortunate," the first strategist said. "What I think is good to see is that she has been involved in the DCCC, she's done a number of events [for them this cycle]."

The strategists also pointed to Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland as a key bridge between the two committees, and a smart hire by Israel. Edwards is a member of the CBC and was selected by Israel to chair the DCCC's Red to Blue program this cycle, a job that could put her in line to take over the campaign committee when Israel steps down.

Edwards dismissed questions about Fudge's comments as typical of the "push and pull" between the DCCC and a variety of caucuses. "We always have discussions about what our relative priorities are, what our interests are, and making sure those are shared and common goals.... And so there's a natural push and pull that goes on as we're trying to figure out what our priorities are. And that's no different from the CBC, frankly, than it is with any of our other caucuses," she said. Edwards also noted that she has "a good relationship" with Israel.

Fudge praised Edwards's work, both in Congress and with the DCCC but added that she's still doesn't believe Israel is trying hard enough. "We appreciate all the work that Donna does. I still do not believe that we get the respect from the chairman that we should get," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Edwards as the chairwoman of the DCCC's Frontline program. She heads the committee's Red to Blue program.