Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus at a Critical Political Crossroads|
Georgia Online News Service
Emanuel Jones is a strapping, striking, soft-spoken former Army Captain who now finds himself in the cross hairs of Georgia General Assembly politics. He is an anomaly and some liken his surprising success as a political powerbroker to that of Atlanta movie mogul Tyler Perry.
He's a "new breed" star, supporters say, burdened with high expectations. Jones, who's said to be a "quiet warrior," is the new leader of a challenged and often conflicted black political collective – the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.
"Emanuel is as good as it gets in the political arena," says state Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), who is one of the leading candidates in the Atlanta mayor's race. "The Georgia Legislative Black Caucus could not have chosen a better chairman for these times than Emanuel Jones. He is a servant leader who has a genuine passion for helping working people and really people who need the help the most. He is exemplar of what a state senator should be."
Jones grew up as a hard-up orphan in the hard-scrabble inner-city of Atlanta's villainous Bankhead Highway [now renamed Donald L. Howell Highway] who is now an atypical multi-millionaire minority car dealership owner; a nationally prominent Georgia state senator and the recently crowned chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus whose 53 members rank as the nation's largest black caucus of state legislators, but are also routinely lambasted and lampooned by Gold Dome cognoscenti as being ineffective and politically inept.
"In the recent past I've been disappointed because in many instances the black caucus has not fulfilled its potential, but there's new leadership overtime will hopefully work to make sure that the black caucus is relevant; is active in the communities out of which we've come," says seven-term state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta).
"Collectively the caucus is ineffective," says Rita Samuels, the first African American to work in the Governor's office under the Jimmy Carter administration and who worked tirelessly to get Dr. Martin Luther King's portrait displayed in the Capitol. "The reason for it is their inability to mobilize the black community around issues that we are impacted by."
The indictment that the black caucus is a "do nothing" group is a perception that Jones has passionately pledged to reverse, which arguably amounts to his most compelling career challenge yet. But he has beat overwhelming odds before.
"Sure I've heard the criticism," says Jones. "The caucus' influence waned with the Capitol takeover by the Republicans. I wasn't there when the Democrats were in charge."
Jones's professorial persona belies his galvanizing grit, gravitas and grace. He laments that dramatic black political advances have not been matched by gains in lower middle-class communities. "There is a lot of talent in our inner cities that go unnoticed and wasted," he says. "What I had to do is escape the mental confines of the inner-city."
State Rep. Alisha Morgan (D-Austell), who has made two unsuccessful runs to chair the black caucus, contends that the group can only be effective if they robustly embrace bi-partisanship and eschew the political pandering and gamesmanship that predictably characterize the annual General Assembly sessions, no matter what political party is in power. Morgan argues that one of the problems plaguing the Legislature is that "times have changed but the people and their mindset haven't."
She argues that whether some small minded legislators have been in the General Assembly for six years or for 36 years "it's time for them to go too because they don't get anything done." She is convinced the black caucus is a symptom of that malaise. Morgan has twice run unsuccessfully for the caucus chairmanship.
"My run this time was not about me, the votes were very close and that speaks to a desire for change and a new kind of leadership," she says. "I think [Jones] will actually be good for the Caucus because we have a lot of repairs to do. The truth be told, the black caucus is not the respected body that it should be. We can't blame others for that, it's our fault. It's been a lack of leadership; a lack of vision and the mindset of people who don't understand the power of numbers. The fact is we are the majority of the Democratic caucus, but we allow the Democratic caucus to control what our agenda is. It's pitiful at best."
Perhaps the most influential member of the caucus is veteran state Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), who is also the House Democratic Caucus Chairman. He is the group's sage. "There's a transformation going on all around us; therefore we've got to re-tool ourselves to be ready for this revolution that's occurring in politics," he says. "Just being an African American is not going to sell anymore."
Smith says there is no quick fix to make the caucus relevant again. "It's going to take a lot of elbow grease and a lot of political astuteness," he says. "That's what we are trying to get African American legislators here to absorb. We have to elevate our game; we have to elevate our politics and we have to elevate the issues by which we try to resonate with the voters. That means you have to become involved with issues that are not necessarily juicy and are not traditional African American issues."
Smyre and Jones also have a pipeline to Washington D.C. and the Obama administration. Smyre enjoys considerable political clout and a seat at the table in Washington as the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, which means he represents is 650 legislators from 42 states. In fact, he met with Obama's transition team before the inauguration.
"My relationship with Congress is nothing new," he says. "I attended my 30th Congressional Black Caucus Weekend this past September. I work the Hill. I'm in contact with various members of Congress trying to see how this stimulus package comes down and how it can affect us and how it can assist us to plug some of these budget deficits."
Jones has also been in Washington recently; meeting the Obama transition team in a desperate effort to secure emergency loans for the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers.
"Members of the caucus welcome the new leadership, the new focus, the new mission and doing some things that have never been done before," says Sen. Gloria Butler (D-DeKalb County). "We do have the largest caucus and we should be the best but we're not the best. Now we are working toward being the best."
Two pieces of legislation have drawn the ire of the caucus this session. State Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland), chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, has introduced a resolution urging the State Board of Regents to save money by merging black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby schools that are predominantly white. The Regents must approve any such merger. Harp says the schools are a "vestige of the Jim Crow era in our state and "perpetuate segregation" in our state. "It's time we close this chapter in Georgia," Harp says.
The caucus has vowed to fight it tooth and nail. During a recent meeting of the caucus, Smyre charged there is a "subliminal proposition" to merge black colleges in Georgia with majority colleges and "change the mission" of historical black colleges and universities. "This shouldn't even be talked about in 2010," he said.
There's also sweeping legislation that's been introduced, House Bill 291, that basically calls for the elimination of all defacto affirmative action programs in Georgia and every county, city, school board and any state authorized entity.
"The caucus is saying 'Hell to the no'," says state Rep. Winfred Dukes, (D-Albany), a contractor who chairs the Georgia Summit of African American Business Organizations.
The Black Caucus reached its apex in 2002 when they commanded 13 black committee chairs in the Democratic Caucus of the House – that's over a third of the chairmanships.
"It was quickly wiped out [with Gov. Sonny Perdue's election] and we had to re-learn how to play the game; how to be effective," says Dukes.
"The Caucus is going through a transition; we've been in somewhat of a freefall where we really didn't know where the bottom was. We've hit the bottom and now we are in a bounce back."
Despite its reputation and internal issues, the black caucus has a renewed spirit fueled many say by its new leadership.
"They've got new leadership that I believe is going to be more proactive," says William Cannon III, chairman of the Economic Justice Coalition for the People's Agenda. "You've got new legislators and new leadership. It's like a football team; you've got a new coach, you've got a new quarterback, you've got new players, you've got some old players, you've got some old coaches and it takes a little while before they all work it out and start working together as a team. It's correct to say that has not necessarily been that way in the past. These are some different times; these are some different people that want to take it to a different level."
Maynard Eaton, formerly a multi-Emmy Award winning newsman with WXIA-TV and deputy press secretary for Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, is now the moderator of Newsmakers Live and executive editor of the Newsmakers Journal. [full bio]