Originally created 02/15/02

Black Legislative Caucus wields considerable power



ATLANTA - Guarding the concerns of the disenfranchised are the words used by members of the Black Legislative Caucus to describe their mission, and the 47-member group uses that focus to interpret the major bills in the General Assembly.

With Democratic members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the caucus often has a tough time getting everyone in the same room with the tangle of conflicting schedules. Many of its members are part of the leadership of the two chambers, giving them duties that leave less time for caucus meetings.

For example, Sen. Charles Walker of Augusta is the Senate majority leader, the highest-ranking black in that body, and Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus is the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party. Mr. Walker also headed up the Unified Campaign in 1998, which coordinated the political messages of all Democratic candidates running that year.

Eleven blacks are chairmen of committees in the Legis-lature, so the caucus isn't disenfranchised, even if the people they aim to look after may be. And white members of the leadership recognize that.

"(The group's) certainly influential," said Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

This year the caucus is pursuing solutions for the problems encountered when the Legislature deregulated natural gas sales for most of the state. Caucus Chairman Carl Von Epps said no single bill has been endorsed by the group yet, but the members know they want some changes.

Many of the poorest Georgians struggle to pay their winter heating bills under the present system, said Mr. Epps, of LaGrange.

Another issue certain to be on the caucus' agenda is high-cost mortgages. Caucus member Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has been pushing legislation for two years to outlaw or regulate the practice that he says targets retirees and low-income people.

Mr. Fort has been frustrated in his efforts, though this year could be different because Gov. Roy Barnes has announced plans to introduce his own legislation addressing the matter.

But success often takes many years, and the caucus is realistic about that, Mr. Epps said.

"We know, through any legislative process, that not every issue is going to be the burning issue," he said. "We are out there fighting the issues that are important to the people."

The caucus also is active between sessions. Last year it held a hearing in Savannah about allegations of discrimination by employees of the Georgia National Guard.

The organization is busiest during the session though.

Rep. Henry Howard of Augusta, the caucus whip, says the group helps members evaluate bills introduced by others.

"Before you go voting on a bill, you like to see how much damage or how much good it will do," he said.

The group also helps its members gather enough votes for their own bills. Mr. Howard said that was critical to passing one he authored this session to allow state employees to serve on the boards of government agencies during their days off, something state law now prohibits.

Accomplishments in recent years have been the change in the state flag, passage of a hate-crimes bill and input in how the legislative and congressional districts were drawn.