Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Politics in Cleveland, Part III

New Black Political Action Committee sets up shop in Cleveland
The Collective PAC has local roots, superb credentials, national ambitions

Twenty-first Century African American politics came to Cleveland on Tuesday night and introduced itself with a substantive self-description, a cordial style, and a direct message for all with ears to hear: There are hundreds of progressive black candidates all across the country, likely including a few right here, who have the capacity to change the politics of this nation. To get elected, they need financial support, training, financial support, relationships and financial support.

The messengers were an appealing married couple, Cleveland-area native Stefanie Brown-James and her husband, Quentin James. They arrived on a vehicle, The Collective PACand announced the opening of a Cleveland office on Van Aken Boulevard, just off Shaker Square.

The James team has brought plenty of savvy to lead the effort to create relationships, build infrastructure, host candidate training and do fundraising, all in support of select progressive candidates at the local, state and federal levels. They certainly appear have the training to pull it off: Stefanie headed a nationwide segment of the Obama campaign in 2012. Quentin played a similar role for Clinton in 2012 and also has nationwide organizing experience with the environmental movement.

In their maiden effort, the PAC endorsed five candidates across the country in the last [two-year] cycle, and four won. Tellingly, none of the five legislative candidates ran in a majority minority district. Lisa Blunt Rochester, for instance, was elected to Congress from Delaware, the first African American from that state to serve in Congress. As Stefanie Brown-James put it, “we are everywhere.”

Citing a 2014 study, the James said that 90% of elected officials in the US are white, including 95% of prosecutors. Moreover, 94% of GOP candidates are white as are 82% of Democratic candidates.

Quentin, after noting that The Collective PAC is already the nation’s largest black PAC, described the organization’s methodology. They are looking for 45 candidates across the country to support in the current 2017-2018 cycle. To earn Collective support, a candidate will have to demonstrate viability [are they competitive with respect to polls and ability to raise money], values [they must complete a 45 part questionnaire] and internal support [PAC donors get to weigh in on who the Collective supports].

In the Q and A that followed their presentation, the couple was asked how success would be measured. Their answer was threefold: 1. By the increase in the number of progressive African Americans serving in office nationwide; 2. By the degree to which African American donors become engaged and active in politics; and 3. By the increase in turnout among African American voters nationwide.

Typically when black people exercise agency and initiative along the lines indicated in this report, criticism comes in the form of comments that imply there is something untoward if not downright un-American about the effort. That critique did not arise at the launch but the James are clearly ready for it. When asked if the PAC would financially support only black candidates, Quentin James gave an uncompromising yes, comparing the Collective to Emily’s List , which provides financial support only to women candidates. He also referenced AIPAC, [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] a special interest group that unabashedly supports its own brand of group interest.

Stefanie Brown-James
Co-Founder/CEO, The Collective PAC
At another point Stefanie stepped in and said she wanted to address “the elephant in the room”.

“I see there are there some white people in the room tonight.” Pausing for just an instant to allow just the right amount of tension to surface, she boomed out a hearty “WELCOME! We’re glad you are here” and offered thanks for their support.

Elected officials were spare in attendance. It is likely that few were invited. The list of sponsors who assembled the guest list seemed to be comprised of young progressive types, along with a few elders. But a physician who said that she and her husband, a retired executive, would contribute $5,000.00 during the current election cycle supplied the most electrifying moment of the evening.

The event had an organic quality to it, and the novelty of this effort probably bypassed normal channels. There were of course some folks there whose names have appeared on ballots, and it is probable there was an even greater number of attendees whose names will appear on future ballots.

But this evening was given not to candidates and stump speeches but to the nuts and bolts of campaigning. The PAC’s website says that over 250 candidates have signed up seeking support.

Their political sophistication showed in their inaugural local event, held at the The Lofts, 1677 East 40 Street, in an elegant and gracious space managed by Improve Consulting, a local minority business enterprise owned by Ellen Burts-Cooper. There was an open, help-yourself bar, and lots of delicious hors-d’oeuvres.

Justin Bibb of the host committee, teeing up the crowd for
Quentin James, Founder and Executive Director of The
Collective PAC [standing, rear] and Stefanie Brown-James,
co-founder [hidden behind Bibb]
Excitement over the duo’s message was palpable. Their practical sense is reflected in the initial office locations they have chosen. The main office is Washington DC, but the Collective has satellite offices in both Greenville, South Carolina and Cleveland, their respective hometowns.

After the event, we checked in with Lynnie Powell, regional political director of the Ohio Democratic Party and someone whose acute political instincts, rich political history, and vast ear-to-the-ground network uniquely equip her to assess the newcomers and their efforts.

“Exhilarating!” she exclaimed. “They give me hope! I didn’t know more than five people in the room,” a remarkable declaration, and likely hyperbolic, coming from someone whose job it is to know who’s who. Nonetheless, it suggests that The Collective PAC co-founders and their local cohort have the potential to dramatically affect the political landscape — certainly in Cuyahoga County and quite possibly across the country wherever they choose to play — by bringing new people and new resources into the equation.

Powell went on to say that she had been smiling almost continuously at the energy and intelligence of these new players. She reminisced about the glory days when Lou Stokes ran the Caucus and its affiliated BEDCO [Black Elected Democrats of Cuyahoga County].

Lou, she said, assessed every member of the Caucus $2500 annually, an amount that supported the ground game so critical to electoral success in black communities. She said he accepted no excuses and held each member accountable for either raising the money or paying it out of their own pocket.

After those Caucus successes, the accountability diminished, and a new regimen emerged that no longer required politicians to do any heavy lifting. Powell clearly disdains this development.

“This,” she said, referring to The Collective PAC, “is the first break old style politics. Count her as one vet clearly ready to shake hands across the generational divide and stand shoulder to shoulder in the struggle.

As another, even more senior person, recalled later, “remember when we were the young Turks, trying to bring change and shake things up? As her listener nodded at the shared memory being evoked, the elder said, “we owe it to our parents and we owe it to today’s young Turks to give them the support they need.”

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Mansfield said...

The question is, can or will they be effective outside of black congressional districts, which, for the most part, are already represented by a person of color.

Richard said...


That is indeed a major question that Collective PAC has already begun to answer. As the piece said, they were successful in 4 of their first 5 races, none of which was a majority black district. With respect to Congressional districts specifically, they were successful in Delaware, which has but one Congressional district. Thus the entire state is now represented by an African American woman. Delaware is less than 30% African American, although Wilmington, its principal city, is about 2x that.

But another key question: I'm sure you agree that many AfAm legislators from majority black districts are not the most progressive sorts. I would think the PAC could have an enormous effect by supporting progressive challengers to some of those retrograde folk. In so doing, they would like enhance the pool of Kamala Harrises, Nina Turners, and Barack Obamas who can be crossover candidates of broad appeal.