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Rep. Cedric Richmond Leads the Charge as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus

by Anitra D. Brown

Weeks after being sworn in as the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond, the only Democrat representing Louisiana in Washington, D.C., revealed just the type of leader he would be — in your face and unafraid to go against the grain.
Though he was careful not to criticize his colleagues, including other CBC members that chose to boycott Donald Trump’s inauguration, Richmond announced that he would not boycott, instead declaring that he would attend—not to celebrate—but to remind the newly elected president of his obligation to all Americans.

The Congressional Black Caucus dates back to March 1971 when its 13 founding members including the late Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat, whose trailblazing efforts made her one of the most well-respected figures in American politics; the recently retired U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.); and current member of Congress, Michigan’s Rep. John Conyers, considered dean of the Caucus, organized and presented a statement to President Nixon outlining 60 recommendations for executive action on issues facing Black America. The Caucus is non-partisan; and while its membership has mostly been comprised of Black Democrats, over the years, it has included Black Republican members of Congress, including Utah’s Rep. Mia Love who currently serves in the 115th Congress.

An unofficial slogan of the CBC asserts that Black folk in America have neither permanent allies nor foes, only permanent interests. And it is around those interests of equality, equity, justice in all areas of American life, that CBC members align themselves. Today, 50 members of the CBC represent 78 million Americans, including 17 million African Americans or roughly 41 percent of the country’s Black population. And as its newly-elected head, Richmond felt it was his duty to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration even though he doesn’t agree with the President’s style, ideology or political platform.

In fact, it was Trump’s win in November that pushed Richmond to seriously consider assuming the leadership role with the CBC, the Louisiana Democrat has said.

“I began to contemplate what life was going to look like in the new environment of the Trump Administration and realized that the CBC was going to have to take the lead role in ensuring African Americans have a loud and active voice,” he said in an interview with NNPA-member newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel.

In a statement announcing his plans to attend despite the dozens of other members of Congress that had publicized their plans to boycott, Richmond said, “I have a deep respect and understanding for the personal decisions made by each member of our caucus. As chair, I have a responsibility to take every opportunity to educate the incoming president on the problems faced by our constituents, and the thoughtful solutions our members propose. My attendance is in no way an endorsement of the President-elect or the destructive, divisive rhetoric that has defined him throughout his campaign and transition.”

In fact, in an exclusive with The New Orleans Tribune shortly before the election last November, Rep. Richmond predicted that if Trump won, “you will see Democrats to fight from day one.” And since January 21, Richmond has wasted no time reminding President Trump of his obligation to the American people and leading the fight.

He quickly denounced Trump’s travel ban that specifically targeted individuals from seven mostly Muslim nations. Richmond testified against President Trump’s pick for attorney general. Along with U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-Georgia) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), he had been invited by the Senate committee to speak during the confirmation hearings, where Richmond asked the committee to vote against Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions’ appointment. But there was more. Richmond also had a problem with the three of them being placed at the end of the committee’s agenda—a move he felt indicated the committee’s lack of interest in hearing from those who opposed Session’s nomination, and he said so.

“To have a senator, a House member, and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus. It’s a petty strategy,” Richmond told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t mind being last, but to have a living legend like John Lewis treated like that is beyond the pale.”

And when Trump tapped John Gore, whom Richmond says has a “long record of defending Republican voter suppression and redistricting lows the dilute the voting power of African-Americans”, to serve as deputy assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division for the Department of Justice, Richmond spoke out again, saying “President Trump’s pick for a senior leadership position in the civil rights division of DOJ is a slap in the face to what the division has represented for over 50 years. “Starting with his nomination of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the president has sent a clear message that he intends to trample on the rights of minority groups and leave no place for recourse.
In the wake of the tornados that devastated parts of New Orleans East earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Richmond urged quick action from Pres. Trump, who appeared slow to offer a disaster declaration opening the way for federal assistance to tornado victims. In a letter dated Feb. 10, he asked the President to give quick action to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for an emergency disaster declaration, saying “declaring a disaster for the people of Orleans Parish would show that you are serious about your commitment to be a president for all people and fulfill the promise you made in August to be there for the people of Louisiana when they are in need after a disaster.”

And more recently, he is a part of the growing chorus of members of Congress calling for an in-depth investigation into exactly what White House officials knew and when they knew it related to the contact between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials and the lies that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told regarding those conversations.

Rising to Power

A local boy in every sense of the word, Richmond grew up in New Orleans East. His father died when he was seven years old, and he was raised by a single mother, Maple, who was a school teacher and small business owner. Later, his stepfather, Ulis Gaines, also a small business owner, became an instrumental part of shaping his life. Richmond played organized sports in the local public recreation program and attended public school, graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School.

He went on to earn his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and a law degree from Tulane University School of Law.  Richmond is also a graduate of the Harvard University Executive Education Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He began his political career in 2000 with his election to the Louisiana House of Representatives, where he served 11 years, representing the state 101st House District. While in Baton Rouge, Richmond served as chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and a member of the Ways and Means, House Executive, and Legislative Audit Advisory committees.

Richmond’s first bid to represent the people of Louisiana’s second congressional district in 2008 was unsuccessful, after coming in third in a primary election for the Democratic nomination for the seat, behind incumbent former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and Helena Moreno. Ultimately, a then-political newcomer Joseph Cao bested Jefferson, to become the first Republican in 117 years, as well as the first Vietnamese-American to represent the district.

What a difference two years make. In 2010, Richmond was named one of Time magazine’s 40 under 40—a list the magazine publishes annually to highlight rising stars among America’s political and civic leaders. That same year, Richmond vied again to become congressman. No doubt buoyed by an endorsement from President Obama, Richmond garnered more than 64 percent of the vote to beat Cao and become only the second Black person to serve the second congressional district. He has won re-election every two years since.

The only Democrat and the only African-American in Louisiana’s eight-member congressional delegation, Richmond was easily re-elected in 2016, besting his closest challenger, former Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden by more than 140,000 votes.

Serving the District, Serving the Nation

Louisiana’s second congressional district has been a part of Congress since 1823. Since the early 1900s, the district has been represented by a Democrat; and for 44 years it was essentially the Boggs Family dynasty, held by Hale Boggs until his presumed death after his plane went missing in 1973 and later his widow the late Lindy Boggs. With White flight and a rise in Black political power, the demographics of the district soon shifted. In 1983, the boundaries of the second congressional district were redrawn, making it a largely African-American district. And in 1991, William Jefferson became the first African American elected to Congress from Louisiana’s second district.

Today, the district, which is nearly 63 percent Black, encompasses much of the city of New Orleans, stretching west to include parts of Jefferson Parish, St. Charles Parish, St. John the Baptist Parish, all of St. James Parish, parts of Ascension, Assumption and Iberville parishes and then into west and north Baton Rouge. Among the state’s six congressional districts, it has the highest unemployment rate, the second lowest median income and the second lowest graduation rate.

The New Orleans Tribune first caught up with Richmond near the end of his first year in Congress.

When he first arrived in Washington seven years ago, Richmond served on the House’s Small Business Committee and Homeland Security Committee. As the son of small business owners, Richmond has an intimate knowledge of the challenges small businesses face and the important role they play in stimulating America’s economy.

He regularly hosted the annual Small Business Expo at Delgado Community College, a two-day event that brought national and regional SBA officials to New Orleans for presentations and workshops on small business topics, including participation in federal procurement programs.
And he was just as proud of the constituent service work his office conducted—helping the disabled, elderly and veterans navigate red tape and bureaucracy inherent in federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration or Veterans Affair. His office also assisted many residents that were struggling with the Road Home program several years after Hurricane Katrina. Richmond said then no job was too small. That sort of constituent-driven service continues today at any of the three field offices Richmond operates in New Orleans, Gretna and Baton Rouge.

More recently, Richmond sat down with The New Orleans Tribune while he was campaigning last fall for both his own re-election and that of former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Then, he talked about the major issues facing Black America.

During that interview, he also went on to say that discourse and solutions on key matters such as education, economic development, minimum wage, and equal pay, will have to take place at all levels of government—from city councils, to state legislatures to the federal government.

“The next eight years are going to be very important to what this city looks like,” Richmond said of New Orleans. “What we have to focus on is how we make our economic development reach into the middle of the city.”

Richmond pointed to other national priorities including education, criminal justice reform and equity in economic development. In fact, criminal justice reform must be a chief effort, Richmond says. And that reform includes a continued push to ban the question regarding criminal background on job applications along with a focus on reducing the use of solitary confinement, supporting programs that keep youth out of jails, and improving re-entry programs and services for returning citizens.

In addition to serving as chairman of the Black Caucus, Richmond now sits on the House’s Homeland Security and Judiciary committees. He also serves on a number of other caucuses, including the New Democrat Coalition, the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and as co-chair of the Congressional Maritime Caucus, the Congressional Refinery Caucus, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, and the Congressional Disaster Relief Caucus.

Still, Rep. Richmond finds time to stay in touch with constituents, returning to the second congressional district on a regular basis.

He recently visited a local church in the district during the 100th birthday celebration of one of its member. After reading a proclamation in honor of the centenarian, he reminded those in attendance that it is on the shoulders of individuals like the woman being honored that day that he stands.

“I think about how you fought Jim Crow,” he said. “And I know I can fight Donald Trump.”

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