Staring down racial tension, gun violence and police misconduct issues across the country, G.K. Butterfield is playing a reserved but active role in Washington, D.C., as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
His caucus colleagues in the U.S. House say Butterfield, a Democrat from the small town of Wilson, North Carolina, is comfortable passing the microphone around.
That’s emboldened them, several caucus members say, to speak louder in a presidential election year where some of the group’s bread-and-butter issues – gun violence and police-community relations – appear as major talking points for campaigns.
While black leaders have clout in the Democratic Party, the caucus has yet to nudge Republican lawmakers to support their most progressive ideas with votes. Still, there’s a sentiment among some members that the Congressional Black Caucus’ current work could be some of its most important ever.
If we asked, ‘Who do we need?’ With every qualification, we would be writing the name ‘G.K. Butterfield.’ He is the right person for this time in history.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., past chairman of Congressional Black Caucus
Politics as a team sport
Butterfield is collegial and finds the group’s strength among individual members, his supporters say.
The heft the CBC, or Congressional Black Caucus, has among Democrats is apparent as black lawmakers drive gun control efforts and speak out against police brutality. The 45-member caucus accounts for nearly a quarter of the Democrats’ total House representation.
“We are heard,” Butterfield said.
Black lawmakers are largely credited with orchestrating and pulling off the 26-hour sit-in on the House floor last month to push for new gun control laws.
Butterfield spoke during the sit-in, saying he wanted it to be the “beginning of a movement.” But civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was the face of the sit-in, flanked by Democratic congressional leaders.
More recently, Butterfield lobbied Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin for action on relations between police and the black community. They assembled a bipartisan working group to suggest legislative measures later this year. Congressional Black Caucus members comprise the Democrats’ entire representation in that group.
“We are the ones who have been impacted – our communities, to a greater degree,” said Rep. Alma Adams, North Carolina’s other CBC member. Adams recently moved to Charlotte, where she’s running for re-election.
Butterfield pushed for younger caucus members to serve with the new group. One is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a 45-year-old Democrat from New York who says CBC leaders are smart to share responsibilities.
It’s key, Jeffries says, to connecting with younger voters, many of whom are inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Some in the Black Lives Matter organization have complained that the CBC is out of touch with young black people, but Jeffries says the two groups have the same goals. Older CBC members who sacrificed during the civil rights movement can be helpful to a younger generation, and he said he sees more unity than division.
Young activists have questioned the CBC’s relevancy and, at times, have lumped in black lawmakers with other Washington-establishment leaders, who they say are part of the problem.
Butterfield came to Black Lives Matter’s defense this month after some conservative pundits and politicians suggested that peaceful protests incited violence against police officers in Dallas, Texas. Five officers were killed. Black Lives Matter organizers and the CBC denounced the shootings; President Barack Obama said the gunman spoke for no one.
“If someone goes in a building and assassinates five police officers, they are a terrorist and they are not a part of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Butterfield said ealier this month in response to the Dallas killings.
People are now talking more openly about racism – many for the first time – but the problem isn’t new, Butterfield and Adams say.
“It didn’t start with Dallas; it didn’t start with Trayvon Martin,” Butterfield said.
They see what they see on television but (non-black people) don’t really connect the dots. (They’re) good people but they don’t fully understand the problem.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, Black Caucus chairman
Butterfield brings the long-view of civil rights struggles to his service as CBC chairman, Adams said.
“When you live it, you don’t forget it,” she said.
A six-term congressman, Butterfield is a former state Supreme Court justice, civil rights attorney and organizer for unions and voting rights. Early in his legal career, Butterfield won a significant case challenging Wilson County local school board and city council elections that were found in violation of federal voting rights law. The outcome affected the county’s at-large election system and cleared the path for more black representation in local government.
His parents were civil rights activists in the segregated South. His father, a dentist and immigrant from Bermuda, helped start Wilson County’s first NAACP chapter.
Unlike many of the black community’s famed leaders, the 69-year-old Butterfield isn’t an ordained or layman preacher. He isn’t prone to fiery speeches and tends to be measured when he criticizes others. He does have some criticism.
If not for the Congressional Black Caucus, Butterfield said, racism and police shootings likely wouldn’t get due attention in Congress. White elected officials, he said, have blind spots.
“They see what they see on television, but they don’t really connect the dots. (They’re) good people but they don’t fully understand the problem,” Butterfield said, noting cases of police misconduct that he says are fueled by racism.
The Congressional Black Caucus is a nonpartisan organization for black lawmakers only. But, historically and currently, the group has attracted mostly Democrats. There’s just one Republican on the 2016 roster: U.S. Rep. Mia Love of Utah.
Membership aside, Butterfield says he wants to engage with Republicans. And he says Speaker Ryan has been more engaged with the caucus than past Republican speakers, including the most recent, John Boehner of Ohio.
A Democratic protest over guns halted House business last month and angered Republicans, threatening to thwart bipartisan progress.
North Carolina’s highest-ranking Republican House member, Rep. Patrick McHenry, agreed that Ryan has done well. McHenry also gave credit to Butterfield.
“G.K. is most assuredly a Democrat and philosophically, he’s consistent with his party,” said McHenry, who is his party’s chief deputy whip in the House. “But, he’s also a former judge. He has a different temperament on how you work through issues.”
Still, he said, the Democrats’ surprise sit-in threatens to snarl bipartisan progress.
“That didn’t further the debate,” McHenry said.
Many say Butterfield works across the aisle effectively, which is why U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a past CBC chairman, says he encouraged Butterfield to run for the job two years ago. In turn, Cleaver says Ryan’s engagement with the CBC is sincere.
“He has been very open. He has not backed away from contact with people of color,” Cleaver said.
Using the ‘bully pulpit’
Much of the Congressional Black Caucus’ visibility this year has come in the form of rallies and press conferences to lobby for gun control legislation, criminal justice sentencing changes and improvements to police-community relations. The CBC, and the Democrats, have limited power this term because of the Republican majority in Congress.
Several Congressional Black Caucus leaders will speak during the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The sit-in was the group’s most high-profile action, but it didn’t get the results Democrats wanted. Congress is on a nearly two-month break, after the House left without votes on gun control proposals for expanded background checks and “no-fly, no-buy” bills keeping suspected terrorists from buying guns.
Votes aside, the Congressional Black Caucus has kept its issues in the news cycle while presidential politics play out, says Duke University’s Kerry Haynie, an expert on race and ethnic politics. Butterfield can use the “bully pulpit,” Haynie said, to stay relevant at a time when the CBC’s legislative power is limited.
It seems the group has helped shape Hillary Clinton’s campaign talking points, Haynie said. And several CBC members will speak at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later next week.
“The CBC cannot be silent or passive as the black community is in crisis,” said Cleaver, who is among the scheduled speakers.
In recent years, black lawmakers have tackled a range of problems, including unemployment rates and partnering with large tech companies to add more black representation on governing boards and in CEO suites.
The current mission, though, feels more pressing as police brutality and guns claim lives, Cleaver said.
Butterfield, he said, is well-positioned to lead.
“If we asked, ‘Who do we need?’ With every qualification, we would be writing the name ‘G.K. Butterfield,’ ” Cleaver said. “He is the right person for this time in history.”