Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus aims to be more relevant

Georgia state Sen. Tonya Anderson of Lithonia, first row-left, shown with state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone, and state Rep. Jasmine Clark of Lilburn, will serve as chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus for the next two years. Her goal is to make the caucus more relevant on issues that have a direct impact on Black Georgians. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia state Sen. Tonya Anderson of Lithonia, first row-left, shown with state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone, and state Rep. Jasmine Clark of Lilburn, will serve as chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus for the next two years. Her goal is to make the caucus more relevant on issues that have a direct impact on Black Georgians. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

On May 5, video went viral of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery being followed by three white men in the Brunswick area and then shot to death. It sparked a national conversation about race.

Two days later, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus — whose stated purpose is to “protect the general welfare of Black people and other people of color” — emailed a press release calling on those who shot him to be arrested and condemning the disease of racism.

The delayed response wasn’t unusual.

In July 2018, a white Georgia lawmaker was shown on cable television shouting a racial epithet and pulling down his pants in an incident that made national headlines.

By noon the next day, the Republican speaker of the House had called on the lawmaker, Woodbine Republican state Rep. Jason Spencer, to resign and several other politicians from both parties had condemned his actions.

Hours later, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus emailed a press release condemning Spencer’s remarks and called on him to resign, something it said it would elaborate on during a press conference two days later. Spencer resigned before the press conference was held.

Such lack of urgency from the country’s largest Black caucus is something that’s plagued the organization for years, members and outsiders alike say.

But they are hopeful that this year, with new leadership in state Sen. Tonya Anderson, the caucus will lose its well-earned reputation of showing up late on issues dealing with race in Georgia.

For example, when Republican state Rep. David Clark earlier this year compared his removal from the House floor for refusing to take a mandated COVID-19 test to the expulsion of 33 Black lawmakers after Reconstruction because of their race, Anderson quickly and publicly condemned his remarks.

“The African American legislators from Reconstruction were forced to abdicate their seats by racist actors who opposed their presence at the state Capitol,” the Lithonia Democrat said. “Racial oppression is not equivalent to bad decision-making, period.”

Anderson, who will serve as the caucus chairwoman for the next two years, wants the group to be known for more than just having the most members of any Black caucus in the nation. The caucus is developing a strategic plan — for the first time in the organization’s history — to set the vision going forward.

There are more than 60 Black members of the caucus. There are also at least seven associate members — lawmakers who are not Black but represent districts with large Black populations.

“Our focus and our shift is to not just be the largest, but the most impactful, the most relevant and to have our message resonate throughout not just Georgia, but the United States,” Anderson said. “I say that because all eyes are on Georgia. We have to be intentional and relevant in the areas that concern Black people.”

Black voters are credited with flipping Georgia in favor of Democratic candidates in November and January with the elections of President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Legislative Black caucuses are modeled after the Congressional Black Caucus, where members work not only to pursue legislation that benefits African Americans, but also to advocate for fair representation on powerful committees, Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said.

“While each individual member is certainly empowered to advance legislation on their specific interests, it’s always better to work together, as opposed to working in silos,” Gillespie said. “So it makes sense to get together to work on those issues.”

But that’s not how the caucus has worked in recent years, said its executive director, Deanna Hamilton, who joined the organization in July.

“They are accustomed to filing their own individual bills and not even coming together to have that conversation,” Hamilton said. “Now they understand that the caucus is here to support and have the resources available to assist them in the process.”

Historical significance

“Coming together” was the reason the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus was founded in 1975 — as a way for lawmakers to pool their power and advocate for issues that affect the Black community.

“Leroy Johnson (the state’s first Black state senator since Reconstruction) in ‘73 started saying we need to get together and start talking about things of commonality, things of interest,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat and member of the caucus since its inception. “That gives you the conduit by which to address issues that relate itself, primarily, to the Black community and to try to elevate those issues into the public political discourse.”

At the time, there were about 17 members, said Smyre, a former caucus chairman. And though Democrats controlled the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, times were different. White, rural conservative Democrats controlled the chambers.

In 2021, lawmakers from many of the same districts run the state, but now they are Republicans. And in 2021, nearly all the Democrats in the Legislature come from the state’s larger cities.

That’s led to the core beliefs of Democrats in the ’70s being vastly different from Democrats of today, Smyre said.

For example, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a figure embraced and lauded by nearly all Georgians in 2021.

But it was a 20-year battle for Georgia to recognize his birthday as a state holiday. Smyre said Black lawmakers for years introduced legislation to enact the change, but it wasn’t until Gov. Joe Frank Harris put his support behind the effort that it passed in 1984.

Things played out similarly with the erection of a King statue on the Statehouse grounds in 2017, where the effort — initially introduced by Black Atlanta state Rep. Tyrone Brooks in 2014 — got backing from Gov. Nathan Deal, a white Republican who previously served in the General Assembly as a Democrat. Deal approached Smyre to spearhead the effort, and three years later, the statue was unveiled.

“With the King statue, you had to coalesce and have the coalition,” Smyre said. “On the King holiday, you had to fight internally (within the Democratic Party) to get your people on board.”

But over the years the party has changed. Black Democrats make up two-thirds of each chamber’s party caucus. And the changing demographics, and changing times, have changed the platform.

When Democrats were in the majority, it was difficult to pass legislation that was seen as addressing “Black issues,” Smyre said. Now, with Republicans controlling both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, that struggle continues.

Frustration

Some Black Democrats have expressed frustration with the caucus.

“I had been really frustrated with the Black caucus because I saw so much potential in what we could do,” Rex Democratic state Rep. Sandra Scott said. “I am vocal, and because of the way that I am, they thought that I am too radical. But that won’t stop me from doing what I have to do for my people.”

Scott files dozens of bills every year that often aim to address issues that have a direct impact on Black Georgians, such as economic and educational inequality and police brutality, even if it’s unlikely that any of the legislation will gain traction.

“I hear the cries of my people saying, ‘What are our legislators doing?’ ” Scott said. “When Ahmaud Arbery was shot down in the street, that’s a caucus issue. When these people are being beaten down by the police, that’s a Black caucus issue. All of that is where you can create policy so that it won’t happen again.”

It’s difficult to measure the success of the caucus because of the lack of power it’s held since it was established, Smyre said.

“It’s hard to establish the ‘scorecard,’ ” Smyre said. “Now that we’re not in the majority, there’s no way to do it by yourself. You have to work with Republicans to get things done. And that’s what happened with hate crimes.”

There’s an inside joke within both the Black and Democratic caucuses that while it might not be reflected by whose names are on the bills that become law, they actually get bills passed because Republicans take ideas that originated with them.

“We stand for what is right until right is done and, in the time that we’re in, sometimes collaboration is a part of it,” Anderson said.

For example, Black legislators for years introduced legislation to increase the punishment for crimes based on characteristics such as race. But it wasn’t until last year — when Republicans decided to take action in reaction to the Arbery video — that the bill passed.

“You introduce a bill and you know the best way to get that bill through is to work with the powers that be,” said state Sen. Ed Harbison, a Columbus Democrat and former caucus chairman. “You use the road to get to where you need to be.”

But some members said they believe the caucus should be taking a more active role in fighting for their policy positions.

In the past five years, the caucus has raised at least $185,000, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign records, collected mostly through membership dues and the group’s annual dinner. About $40,000 of that was raised in 2020, with some of the largest donations coming from organizations such as the Home Depot Political Action Committee, the Georgia Association of Educators Fund and the Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance PAC — which is pushing the state to legalize online sports betting.

The donations help pay for the caucus’ staff, interns, scholarships and its annual Heritage Dinner that honors the state’s Black culture.

“As the largest Black caucus, we are going to have to mobilize and find out how to get in the trenches of these rural towns and rural communities and let them know we are here to help them and support them in whichever way we can,” Scott said. “I think with the leadership that we have this year, I believe that they’re going to be that voice for the people.”

‘A new day’

Anderson has already made some changes. For one, she’s putting together a strategic plan for the caucus, which will include both legislative priorities and strategies for how the caucus can achieve its goals.

Anderson has created a policy committee whose goal is to study legislation that’s already been introduced by caucus members and consider whether the group wants to support it. The caucus may also introduce legislation.

Hamilton said the organization recognized it had a problem and “went about the business of addressing it.”

She said she and Anderson are putting together programs for caucus members that include leadership development, public speaking and negotiation.

“It is a new day at the caucus,” Hamilton said. “It’s about shifting the mindset and putting a model in place that creates accountability so that when we show up, we show up informed and make sure what we’re doing is relevant and is impactful for constituents.”

Anderson said the next two years her caucus will focus on “justice in the areas of economics, education, health care and criminal justice reform.” She specified that “economic justice” is supporting legislation that helps Black Georgians build wealth through homeownership and small businesses.

“Our goal,” she said, “is to be the most relevant and impactful (caucus) and have our message resonate throughout the state on behalf of the Black and brown communities.”

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