U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson was elected Wednesday as the next chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and promised to hold the group of African-American lawmakers together as the “conscience of the Congress.”
“We have been united in purpose, and we have a very consolidated agenda to address the needs of those who have been out of the economic recovery,” Butterfield, a former Superior Court judge and civil rights attorney in North Carolina, said in an interview.
“We’ve got to fight the Republicans, if that’s the case, to make sure there are no draconian cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, which is where we fund our programs,” he said.
Butterfield has represented northeastern North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District since 2004. The district, which now extends west to part of Durham as a result of redistricting, includes all or part of 24 counties.
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The 45-member caucus is nonpartisan, but most of its members have been Democrats. The last Republican member was Rep. Allen West of Florida, who left Congress after losing re-election in 2012. Sen. Tim Scott, a black Republican from South Carolina, chose not to join when he was appointed in 2012.
Two black conservative Republicans, Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas, were elected to their first terms in the House in November. Butterfield said he’d welcome them to the group.
“If they’re willing to embrace the core values of the Congressional Black Caucus, they’ll have a seat at the table,” he said.
The caucus is dedicated to universal access to education, health care, technology, capital and decent-paying jobs. Its website says it is the voice of “people of color and vulnerable communities.”
Butterfield is known in Washington as a behind-the-scenes strategist for the caucus and House Democrats. He serves in the Democratic House leadership as a chief deputy whip, a job that requires knowing what lawmakers think and trying to get them to vote with the party leadership.
One of his key issues has been working to renew the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a section of the landmark 1965 civil rights law that designated parts of the country that must obtain federal clearance for any proposed changes to state voting laws.
The Republican-led House has not moved legislation to make fixes in the legislation, but Butterfield said he’d keep fighting.
Voting rights is a personal matter for the 67-year-old lawmaker, whose great-grandmother was a slave and whose great-grandfather was a white slave owner.
Their son, Butterfield’s maternal grandfather, became a Baptist minister. Butterfield’s mother was a teacher who went to high school at Shaw University in Raleigh in an era when there were no high schools for black students, except for boarding schools like the one at Shaw.
Butterfield grew up in Wilson, his mother’s hometown, when it was still segregated. His father emigrated from Bermuda at 16 and became a dentist in Wilson. His father was allowed to vote early on, but city officials told him it was a special favor they granted to him. But when his father started helping other African-Americans to register to vote, he faced intimidation, Butterfield said, and was forced to stop.
His father resumed his voting efforts after helping organize a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1947. He was elected to the city council in 1953. But four years later when the family was on vacation, the council changed the voting rules to make elections for members-at-large instead of by districts. Butterfield said his father then lost his council seat.
Butterfield was 10 at the time and his father’s experience made a lasting impression. He attended college and law school at N.C. Central University. As a lawyer, he won cases that made it possible for blacks to become elected in black districts, instead of in bigger areas that had white majorities.
Champion of equality
CBC members said Butterfield, who served as judge on both the North Carolina Superior Court and the state Supreme Court, was a good choice to chair the group. He had been the first vice chair and had been working his way up in seniority. The vote was unanimous.
“ ‘The judge’ was chosen for his good judgment and good sense,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a former CBC chairman. “Being the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus is both an honor and a challenge, but make no mistake about it, he is more than up to the task.”
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat who has served in Congress for 50 years, is the dean of the black caucus and was one of its 13 founding members in 1971. He said Butterfield had championed equality throughout his 10 years in Congress.
“I am confident that he will lead the Congressional Black Caucus in the 114th Congress with that same passion and vivacity as we continue to tackle pressing challenges like attaining health care, strengthening education, expanding employment opportunities, and protecting voting rights that we confront in the African-American community,” Conyers said.
Butterfield said he was “humbled and honored” by the chairmanship. He said it would give him a “louder voice” for his district, which includes much of northeastern North Carolina and parts of Durham. As chairman, he will have access to Republican and Democratic congressional leadership and to Cabinet secretaries and the White House, he said.
“It will give me an opportunity to do more,” Butterfield said, “and I’m excited about it.”