Rep. Adriano Espaillat wants to join the Congressional Black Caucus. The question for the group’s members is whether he qualifies as African-American.
So far, the answer is no.
Espaillat, who in November became the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, identifies himself as a “Latino of African descent.” The CBC has a long-standing policy of limiting its caucus to African-American members, denying membership to white lawmakers in the past who have tried to join, even if they represent majority-minority districts.
The New York Democrat hasn’t formally asked to join but has been in discussions with CBC leadership. Espaillat has already joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
CBC members debated Espaillat’s potential membership during their weekly meeting Wednesday. CBC leaders said no decision was made.
The group’s chairman, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), denied there was a dispute about allowing Espaillat to join. But several other members confirmed ongoing tensions over the matter. POLITICO spoke with nearly a dozen CBC members and aides for this story, but most refused to talk on the record, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Espaillat was chairman of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus in the State Assembly and later led the Puerto Rican and Latino Caucus in the New York state Senate.
“I got elected with Adriano in the State Assembly. I know his heart is in the right place. I just think this is going to be a continuing dialogue to determine what to do,” Meeks said.
“Now [in Congress], we’ve been different in that you were either in the Black Caucus or you were in the Hispanic Caucus,” Meeks added. “And so the question is what happens in this scenario. And I guess he’s the first Dominican to [apply] and we’re just trying to figure it out.”
Espaillat rankled some CBC members because he tried to join the caucus while simultaneously being a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, something members say has never happened before and could be politically motivated.
Espaillat’s district, while majority Latino, has a sizable African-American population and includes Harlem, long the intellectual and cultural center of black America.
“See that complicates matters. Even though our agendas are typically parallel, occasionally they are not. So it may be problematic if someone wants to belong to two ethnic caucuses,” said. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former chairman of the CBC. “If he’s considered an African-American then he’s certainly welcome in the caucus. But I can’t speak for the caucus.”