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Black Catholics in Congress (2022 edition)

Black Catholics are increasingly elusive in Congress, and the 2022 midterms are bringing more of the same. Even so, things are somewhat complicated. Nate Tinner-Williams explains.

Victory message from Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York, the only known Black Catholic elected to the 118th Congress.

As the dust settles in this week's 2022 midterm elections, and the narrative of a “Red Wave” is officially debunked, it’s clear that dreams of Democrat gains were also overstated. Even so, a number of progressive Black newcomers made history in both statewide and congressional races.

Following record representation of Black Americans in the current US Congress, more Black candidates ran for office in this fall’s elections than ever in history. The intersection with members of the Catholic Church—who have maintained record highs in the nation’s federal chambers over the past several years—is also notable, though for different reasons.

Black Catholics will be near a record low in the next Congress, with Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York running unopposed as the lone such legislator seeking to retain his seat.

One of two known Black Catholics in the 117th Congress, he has long sought membership in the Congressional Black Caucus to no avail, despite his Afro-Dominican roots.

The other current Black Catholic congressperson, Rep. Anthony Brown (also a Democrat), successfully won his bid to become Maryland’s attorney general—a Black first. He will be succeeded in the House by a Black Methodist in Glenn Ivey.

Protestants Tim Scott of South Carolina and Cory Booker of New Jersey will be among three Black senators in the 118th Congress, all of whom are male. A yet-to-be-determined African American will represent Georgia. (Raphael Warnock and Trump-endorsed Herschel Walker are headed to a December runoff.)

Among the Black Catholic question marks in the House are a number of Democrats, including the well-known Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the progressive bloc known as “The Squad.” The Puerto Rican Catholic millennial easily won reelection to her NYC district, and identifies as Afro-Latina. She has said in the past, however, that this does not mean she considers herself “Black.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres, another young Afro-Boricua incumbent in the Big Apple, recently revealed that he was raised Catholic but is now “hardly” practicing. In a previous official Congress survey, he was listed as a Protestant. He won his race this week with upwards of 80% of the vote.

Two other successful Puerto Rican incumbents in the House, Nydia Velazquez of New York—the first Boricua woman in Congress—and Darren Soto of Florida, also won re-election and are Catholic, but neither openly identifies as Afro-Latinx.

Rep. Barbara Lee of California, the daughter of African-American Texans, was brought up Catholic and later became a Baptist. She is notable for having been the only congressperson to vote against war following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Elsewhere in the lower chamber will be the nation's latest Gen-Z congressperson, 25-year-old Maxwell Frost of Florida, who won his race to succeed Rep. Val Demings. He is of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, but has not been identified as a Catholic. A fellow Haitian American in Florida, Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, has not publicized her religious affiliation.

With four Senate races left to call, and 44 in the House, the tilt of the 118th Congress is still up in the air, though Republicans currently lead results in both. Expert forecasters have noted, however, a strong chance for Democrats to lead the Senate following the conclusion of tight counts in Nevada, Arizona, and Alaska.

With independent senators holding office in Maine and Vermont, respectively, a tiebreak in the upper chamber would fall to Vice President Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking female politician in US history.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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