Frustrated with Democratic Party, Black Palm Beach County residents form independent political caucus – Palm Beach Post
A group of Black Palm Beach County residents has launched a political caucus aimed at advancing issues of importance to Black voters and supporting candidates who address those issues.
The formation of the group, the Black Caucus of Palm Beach County, crystalizes ongoing Black frustration with the Democratic Party. The party has long relied upon Black voters for support but has, in Florida and across the country, struggled in recent years to advance policies, responses and candidates important to its most consistent voting bloc.
“It is the position of the caucus that, despite unwavering loyalty to the Democratic Party, the political interests of the African-American community have consistently taken a back seat once elections have been won,” said Richard Ryles, an attorney and former West Palm Beach city commissioner who serves as president of the group. “We will no longer tolerate disinterest in the issues critical to our community.”
The group will not be affiliated with any political party.
“The Black Caucus of PBC represents all of the peoples of the African diaspora who live in the county — no matter their party affiliation — to address their concerns and to ensure politics does the same,” the caucus said in a statement announcing its formation.
With Black backing, Democrats have made what its supporters view as historic gains — electing and then re-electing the first Black president in the country’s history, Barack Obama, passing his signature Affordable Care Act and electing the first Black vice president in the nation’s history, Kamala Harris. There have been other high-profile successes for the party as well, including the election of the first Black Georgian to the U.S. Senate, Raphael Warnock.
But on a range of policy issues important to Black voters, including broader access to health care through Medicaid expansion, law enforcement reform, federal action to stem the tide of state legislation making voting more difficult and a prompt raising of the minimum wage, Democrats have been unsuccessful.
That’s largely because Republicans don’t support those policies, and Republicans have been successful in winning elections — even when they are outnumbered by Democrats, as is the case in Florida.
According to 2021 figures from the state Division of Elections, the number of registered Democrats in Florida stands at 5.13 million, slightly above the number of registered Republicans, which stands at 5.12 million.
A huge chunk of voters in Florida, 3.79 million, are registered with no party affiliation. And, much to the chagrin of the state Democratic Party, an increasing number of such voters are Black.
Like Florida voters overall, Black voters are decreasingly Democratic.
While the number of Black Democrats has climbed to more than 1.5 million in the past four years, state voter records show that the share of Black Floridians registering with the party has declined.
About 79% of Black voters were registered Democrats as of January, down from about 81% four years before.
Much of that decline has been driven by Black voters younger than 50. And although white voters in their teens and 20s have increasingly registered Democratic, the youngest Black members of the electorate have not.
The share of Black voters ages 18 to 49 who are registered Democrats declined to 73% in January from 77% four years prior. The number of Black Democrats younger than 30 declined to about 298,000 from more than 312,000. And 70% of them this year are Democrats, down from 73%.
Meanwhile, 25.5% of white voters in that age group are Democrats, up from 24.4%.
About 18% of Black voters in Florida were registered as neither Democrat or Republican as of January, up from about 16% four years ago. Just 3.5% were Republicans, a ratio unchanged during that time.
The share of all voters who are Democrats dipped to 36.6% from 37.9%.
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Democrats have no Black voters to spare in Florida.
Already, Republicans have majorities in the state’s congressional delegation, in the state House of Representatives and in the state Senate.
Republican candidates have won Florida in the last two presidential elections, a huge prize given that the state’s 29 Electoral College votes in 2016 and 2020 represented more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.
Both of the state’s U.S. senators are Republicans, and Florida hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Buddy MacKay’s 24-day stint following the 1998 death of the last Democrat elected governor, Lawton Chiles.
Republican dominance in Florida has meant opposition to law enforcement reform, calls for which grew louder in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
In April, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by a slim margin in 2018, signed legislation that would empower the state to withhold funds from cities that reduced funding for law enforcement.
The same legislation also created new criminal categories for protesters who threaten violence or close state highways. Democrats, particularly Black Democrats, said the law was aimed at Black Lives Matter protesters and noted that it was not invoked when Cuban-Americans in Miami — an important Republican constituency — blocked roads in July to protest a crackdown in Cuba.
Floyd’s death heightened calls for the removal of Confederate monuments and statues, which were erected in honor of people who fought against the United States to keep Black Americans in bondage. Some cities in the South have begun to remove Confederate monuments and statues, arguing that they are an affront to both the United States and to Black Americans.
But the law DeSantis signed increased penalties for anyone who tears down a statue or monument, another aspect of the bill Black Democrats and their liberal allies described as racist.
Republican dominance in Florida has meant opposition to Medicaid expansion, which the GOP argues is too costly but which Democrats say is critical to help poor people get medical care. State Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said he understands the frustration of Ryles and other Black voters.
“Absolutely, there’s room for Black voters to be frustrated,” said Powell, who is chairman of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. “If we had a Governor Gillum, you have seen an expansion of Medicaid. You would have seen a better fix on unemployment.”
But the reality of Republican control, Powell said, means little or no progress on issues of importance to Black voters.
“The thing is, Republicans are in control,” he said. “They control the House. They control the Senate, and they control the Governor’s Mansion.”
Nationally, the effort to stop states from making it harder to vote — which Black Democrats label as a blatant attempt by Republicans to deny voting rights to people unlikely to vote for GOP candidates — has run into a wall of opposition from Republicans in Congress.
Democrats, who have a slim advantage in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, could change the Senate filibuster rule and pass voting rights legislation without GOP support. But West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, a U.S. senator who represents a state with a Black population of less than 4 percent, has announced his opposition to some aspects of the voting rights legislation.
His stance and the party’s unwillingness so far to try to go around him has angered many Black voters, who wonder just how committed the Democratic Party is to a position that’s crucial to them. Ryles said he and other Black Democrats are tired of seeing the party resign itself to policy defeat instead of finding a way to win.
“They kick us in the teeth, and it’s like, ‘Oh, well, they kicked us in the teeth. We don’t have the numbers,'” he said. “It makes it harder to go out and generate enthusiasm and support when people see that.”
Ryles said the Black Caucus will hold meetings, support candidates and grade office-holders on how they are performing on issues of importance to Black voters.
“The mission is to energize the Black electorate and to focus on the issues of the Black community and to stop the parties from taking our votes for granted,” he said.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, several Black Democrats told The Palm Beach Post in off-the-record remarks that the party was slow to respond to telephone calls, failed to make data available or to hone its messaging in ways that would make it more relevant and effective.
Jose Parra, senior communications advisor for the state Democratic Party, said the party does have work to do to strengthen its bonds with minority voters. “One of the issues that affected the party was that minorities were not prioritized,” Parra said. “It was like the circus. After the election, the party would pull up stakes and leave town.”
The party’s new leadership is working to change that, Parra said.
Manny Diaz, who is Hispanic, took over as party chairman in January. And Marcus Dixon, who is Black, is the party’s new executive director. “They’ve been both deeply immersed in the rebuilding of the party,” Parra said.
Ryles said the party’s task is large.
“They should feel there is a lot of work to do to make sure all of the priorities of its voters are being met,” he said.
For his part, Powell said he welcomes the caucus to the political fray.
“I applaud Richard Ryles and anyone else who forms a group for people who feel they aren’t being heard,” he said. “Any group that wants to change things and help Black people or any people in Palm Beach County, I think is a good thing. I don’t see how it could be a bad thing.”