Freshman Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, D-Tenn., is not joining the Congressional Black Caucus after several current and former members made it clear that a white lawmaker was not welcome.

"I think they're real happy I'm not going to join," said Cohen, who succeeded Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., in a majority-black Memphis district. "It's their caucus and they do things their way. You don't force your way in. You need to be invited."

Cohen said he became convinced that joining the caucus would be "a social faux pas" after seeing news reports that former Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., D-Mo., a co-founder of the caucus, had circulated a memo telling members it was "critical" that the group remain "exclusively African- American."

Other members, including the new chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and Clay's son, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., agreed.

"Mr. Cohen asked for admission, and he got his answer. ... It's time to move on," the younger Clay said. "It's an unwritten rule. It's understood. It's clear."

The bylaws of the caucus do not make race a prerequisite for membership, a House aide said, but no non-black member has ever joined.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who is white, tried in 1975 when he was a sophomore representative and the group was only 6 years old.

"Half my Democratic constituents were African-American. I felt we had interests in common as far as helping people in poverty," Stark said. "They had a vote, and I lost. They said the issue was that I was white, and they felt it was important that the group be limited to African-Americans."

Cohen remains hopeful, though, that he can forge relationships with black members in other ways.

"When I saw the reticence, I didn't want anyone to misunderstand my motives. Politically, it was the right thing to do," he said. "There are other ways to gain fellowship with people I respect."

Cohen won his seat in the 60 percent black district as the only white candidate in a crowded primary field. If he faces a primary challenge next year from a black candidate, as expected, some Black Caucus members may work to defeat him.

A similar situation arose in 2004 after redistricting added more black voters to the Houston district of former Rep. Chris Bell, D-Texas.

Although House tradition discourages members of the same party from working against each other, about a dozen black lawmakers contributed to Bell's opponent, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, the eventual victor. Even Bell's Houston neighbor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, campaigned against him.

One black member who criticized his colleagues for sandbagging Bell was Cohen's predecessor, Harold Ford.

"You have an incumbent, and you don't support an incumbent? It was inappropriate," Ford told Congressional Quarterly in 2004.

Cohen has won high marks for hiring African-Americans. His staff is now majority African- American, he said, including his chief of staff.

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0107/2389.html
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