CALIFORNIA -- The California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC) hit record numbers after the 2014 midterm elections, expanding its membership to twelve. The caucus is now in a better position to push major items on its agenda, and some members say recent changes to the state's electoral system are partly responsible.
Established in 1967, the CLBC is a champion for the rights and representation of African-Americans in California. Before November, the number of members never passed nine legislators. The 2014 elections, therefore, represent a historic achievement for this group of lawmakers.
The new members elected in 2014 include Asms. Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), Tony Thurmond (D-Oakland), Mike Gipson (D-Compton), and Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood). Several members have expressed their excitement about the recent expansion, including Burke.
"With an expanded CLBC, we can be a positive voice for change and ensure that with our economic recovery and all of the new opportunities and incentives that go along with it, communities of color aren’t being left behind," she commented in an interview for IVN.
The jump in caucus membership followed recent changes to California's electoral system, including the nonpartisan, top-two primary and the establishment of an independent redistricting commission.
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission was authorized under Proposition 11 in 2008. Originally, the 14-member commission was responsible for drawing the electoral boundaries for state legislative and Board of Equalization districts. However, Proposition 20 -- passed in 2010 -- expanded the commission's responsibilities to include congressional districts as well.
The top-two primary was also approved by California voters in 2010 under Proposition 14. Under the new electoral system, all candidates and voters, regardless of party affiliation, participate on a single primary ballot. The top two vote-getters, no matter what party they belong to (or don't belong to) or how much of the vote they receive, move on to the general election in November.
Though these reforms were implemented only a few years ago, Burke believes they are already having an effect on the CLBC. She says the changes have broadened their perspective.
During her election, Burke asserted that there should be a greater diversity of ideas and perspectives in the caucus, and California's new electoral model has helped accomplished this. However, she understands that greater diversity also means greater competition because of the new primary system.
"As challenging as the open primary system has been for many of us, it’s kept us in touch with our constituents," she remarked.Burke's legislative goals and priorities are evidence of this, as they are focused on the success and betterment of her constituents. Since many of her colleagues share similar goals for their own districts, she believes a larger CLBC will have a major impact on pushing the right legislation.
"There’s strength in numbers, and the more voices we have in the CLBC pushing for change and investment in career technical education, the better," she said.
Burke is already working on several projects for her district, including authoring a bill that would streamline funding for occupational centers that match individuals to a variety of jobs and working for a "landmark investment" in career technical education.
Burke is also using her position as the chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Career Technical Education and Building a 21st Century Workforce to "highlight the challenges that many of our constituents face." She hopes her efforts and position will unite "businesses, educators, and students" alike.
"My experience with businesses, my own and those I’ve worked with, has helped shape my perspective on what industries really need from a workforce, and where we’re seeing a skills gap," she said.
With the CLBC's broad goals being to give African-Americans in California the resources to "Learn and Grow" and "Work and Earn" successfully, Burke's legislation and personal mission will help members of the CLBC accomplish the larger mission of providing more opportunities to all of their constituents.
To accomplish this, the CLBC wants to increase high school graduation rates, reduce unemployment by focusing on small businesses, and increase the number of students attending two- and four-year colleges in California.
With the recent expansion of the caucus and the skills that new members like Autumn Burke have to offer, the CLBC is in a much better position to see these goals become a reality. Members of the caucus have a stronger voice in the Legislature, and their constituents have greater representation.
Image: 2015 California Legislative Black Caucus