Stung by criticism that its "Better Deal" agenda ignores black voters, African American members of Congress strongly defended the party’s latest pitch to woo white working class voters.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., an architect of the mostly-economic relief plan the party unveiled earlier this week, said it will benefit all voters. He maintained that the overture to white voters won’t stop Democrats from trying to expand their African American and Latino base, historically among the party’s most loyal voting blocs.
"No one in the House Democratic Caucus is going to walk away from issues such as criminal justice reform, ending mass incarceration, cracking down on police brutality, dealing with voter suppression and correcting the long-standing injustices that have plagued many in the African American community since the dawn of this great country," Jeffries told a small group of reporters Wednesday.
Some congressional lawmakers and African American activists – notably at the NAACP annual convention in Baltimore, which ended Wednesday – have expressed fears the agenda places too much emphasis on economic issues and sidesteps social issues and matters of race.
The "Better Deal" plan has received mixed reviews since its Monday rollout. Several liberal Democrats praised it, saying it harkens back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s "New Deal" during the Great Depression of the 1930s and borrows from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign platform.
But the new plan has also been panned as warmed-over Democratic talking points that give few specific nods to African American and Latino voters who’ve been instrumental in helping the party win congressional seats and presidencies. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year won 89 percent of the black vote and two-thirds of the Latino vote, according to network exit polls.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, suggested that the Democratic Party would do better by spending its time and campaign money on bolstering its minority base instead of trying to attract a white voting bloc that a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won since 1964.
"I think we need a turnout message, and I don’t believe this is it," Fudge said. "We’ve been losing blue collar white males since Jimmy Carter.” Carter last ran for president in 1980.
“This isn’t something that just started,” Fudge said. “But as our country becomes more and more polarized, it is going to become more and more difficult to get back a base that we’ve lost."
She added that "It’s interesting to me that every time we don’t win an election, it’s because African Americans don’t vote, but yet when we go to try to figure out who to reach out to to vote, it’s not African Americans. It makes no sense to me." African American turnout dipped to 59.6 percent last year, its worst showing in 20 years, according to Pew Research Center data.
Jeffries, co-chair of the House’s Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and a black caucus member, said the Democrats’ new plan, unveiled in rural Berryville, Va., would benefit everyone including African American voters.
The economy and jobs have long been African American issues, Jeffries said, noting that the full name of the the 1963 March on Washington, a landmark moment of the civil rights era, was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
These days, African American voters are too often identified as solely social issues voters, to the black community’s detriment, Jeffries said. African American voters comprised about 12 percent of the total electorate last year.
"What often happens is that the African American community is put into a box as if the only thing we’re concerned about is social justice issues, which allows some in the establishment to disconnect us as a community from the mainstream economy," he said.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a past critic of the Democratic Party’s African American voter outreach efforts, agreed.
"The people who worked on this plan are all involved in the social agenda," Hastings said. "But if you spend your time looking at just the social concerns in this nation, then we won’t build a majority and we can’t do anything about the social concerns. It would be hard to argue that black and brown people aren’t concerned about the economy."
Jeffries said Democratic leaders intend to flesh out more details about their "Better Deal" agenda and its relevance to minority voters, a conversation that Fudge said she’s looking forward to.
"This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end," Jeffries said.