US: Progressives must assert their power after Democrats’ mid-term victories

 By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

Democrats have much to celebrate after the US mid-term elections. Their party needed to pick up 23 seats to take over the House and they will end up with probably 40. But they can also celebrate their greater diversity, expanding the rainbow coalition which Martin Luther King Jr. died for and John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and others have dedicated their lives to.

Non-white representation in Congress dates back nearly 150 years, with 11 African Americans serving in the Senate, starting with Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi in 1870. More than 120 have served in the House, starting with Joseph Rainey of South Carolina in 1870 and including the first Floridian, Josiah T. Walls, in 1873, and the first woman, Shirley Chisholm of New York in 1969. Now, more than 20 African American women will serve in the House.        

More than a dozen Latinos have served in the Senate, starting with Dominique Bouligny of Louisiana in 1824 and 87 have served in the House, beginning with Alcee le Branche of Louisiana in 1843 and including the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Latina, elected from Florida.

What is new is the election of more progressives, including democratic socialists such as Alexandria Ocasio-Corte of New York, two Native American women, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, and two Muslim women, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, to the House. Davids of Kansas and of the Ho-Chunk Nation is a lawyer, a former mixed martial arts fighter and a lesbian. Haaland of New Mexico is of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Davids and Haaland will become part a long tradition of Native Americans in Congress, starting in the Senate with Hiram Revels, a Lumbee, of Mississippi, in 1870, the first of five, and the House, starting with John Floyd of Virginia, a Powhatan, in 1817, the first of 16.

-On the Muslim side, Tlaib of Michigan is the first Palestinian American woman elected to Congress and Omar of Minnesota, a former refugee, is the first Somali-American. Although Muslims have lived in the U.S. since at least 1701, it was not until 2006 that the first Muslim American, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, was elected, to the House, resigning to run successfully for the state’s attorney general this year. Andre Carson of Indiana has been serving since 2007.

-The Democratic majority will go after the corruption infecting the administration but there are more pressing matters ahead, especially restoring electoral integrity across the country. Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida did not become the first African American governors and Democrats did not capture the Senate. They lost several races by razor-thin margins because of voting roadblocks which the Republicans erected over the years, including perennial gerrymandering, under-funding of elections departments, directing voters to the wrong polling places, rejecting provisional ballots, demanding citizenship identification and locating voting sites in out-of-the-way places.

Also, the Democratic victory is due to an obvious distaste for President Donald Trump but more
especially to painstaking efforts on the ground starting soon after his election. Reuters pointed to the efforts of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and its executive director, Dan Sena. Their target was a gain of 30 seats — seven more than needed to retake the House — and the committee pumped millions of dollars into at least 85 districts and trained 3,000 campaign workers and candidates.

And there is at least one ongoing initiative to persuade Trump voters to hear past the chatter and see through their alternative bubble: Down Home North Carolina, led by Brigid Flaherty, who is white and founded the group after the 2016 election, and Sharon “Lois” Cullins, an African American. The Nation magazine said the group “aims to turn the Blue Ridge Mountains blue,” one person at a time.

The Democratic House majority must be more than a check on Trump and a showcase for diversity. Clarence Thomas adds diversity to the U.S. Supreme Court but only by the color of his skin. Unlike his predecessor “black justice,” Thurgood Marshall, he has done nothing in 27 years to inform the court’s deliberations by his experiences as an African American. The expanded diversity must be reflected in the policies which the party pursues in government.

Already, squabbling has started on electing the Speaker and on committee assignments. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is poised for a return and, for a second time, Trump has tweeted his support, apparently scared of the possibility that he may have to deal with a brash young leader from the incoming freshman class. The Speaker is important but the so-called Republican Freedom Caucus has shown that, even in small numbers, a determined group can exert considerable influence over the majority.

That is the model which the progressives can adopt if Pelosi and other veterans entrench themselves in the leadership with the aim of returning to business as usual. Ocasio-Cortez seems a natural leader for such a caucus. On Sunday, she called on fellow progressives to challenge conservative Democrats in Congress in upcoming primaries, Huffington Post reported.

Ocasio-Cortez and some others in the incoming class played a decisive role in the Democratic victory. Like many of them, she is an unabashed democratic socialist with an unabashed agenda and she does not seem interested in playing the Washington game and engaging in what Trump and the hypocritical Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell call “bipartisanship.” They sank that ship long ago.
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Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Chronicle in the 1970s and in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating to the United States in 1984 where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times. Though now retired, he writes a commentary for The South Florida Time in which the above article first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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