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The Importance Of Rep. J.C. Watts To The Black Electorate

On my way in to see Rep. Richard Gephardt last week, I literally ran into Rep. J.C. Watts as I was entering the side of the U.S. Capitol while the Oklahoma Congressman was exiting down the ramp. We warmly greeted one other and briefly spoke, having not seen each other since prior to Mr. Watts' trip to Nigeria, earlier this summer.

After I left my meeting with the House Minority Leader, I could not help but to think of how much more powerfully it would serve the collective interests of the Black electorate if all of its elected officials, regardless of political persuasion, would work together, on their behalf.

If you have not already noticed, in our Link Room, we have a category called "Black Members Of Congress", and in that category we list Rep. J.C. Watts right along with all of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We have never subscribed to the theory that the only elected officials working on the behalf of the Black electorate are the members of Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

I have been told that it was by mutual agreement that Rep. Watts is not a member of the CBC. I have always thought that he should be officially part of that body of Black lawmakers. That opinion has not grown out of any recognition of vast agreement between Rep. Watts and CBC members but out of a very simple realization. I have felt that to have any Black member of Congress not as a member of the CBC betrays the interests of the Black electorate. After all, is it the "Black Caucus" or really the "Black Democratic Caucus"?

Certainly, at the very least, the Black electorate deserves less acrimony than has existed between Rep. Watts and the CBC in the past. I have personally spoken to members of the CBC who tell me that they literally do not care for Rep. Watts, while others have told me that they have no problems whatsoever with the former Oklahoma Sooner quarterback. Indeed Rep. Watts and several members of the CBC have stood together on various issues. The Republican lawmaker has stood side-by-side with his Black Democratic colleagues, like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), on health issues impacting the Black electorate. And he has locked arms with CBC members like Rep. Danny K. Davis of Illinois and Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana on issues like economic development in distressed urban and rural areas. The bipartisan approach of the Black lawmakers proved to be effective as well as full of symbolic importance.

And breaking with Republican orthodoxy, Rep. Watts has been just as quick as his Democratic colleagues to recognize the power of culture and symbolism. Mr. Watts has taken the opportunity, on the floor of the U.S. Congress, to call for the establishment of a commission to provide for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision. And Mr. Watts is currently spearheading an effort to establish the formation of a task force to study ways for Congress to recognize the role of Black slaves in the construction of the U.S. Capitol. By making cultural and symbolic appeals, Rep. Watts distinguishes himself from numerous other Black conservatives who think that such approaches compromise their conservative principles. Congressman Watts clearly understands what moves the Black electorate and how important it is to respect the history of the Black experience in America, even though, at present, the most active voters of that community do not support his Party.

One of the saddest elements of the opposition received by Rep. Watts and in another manner, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which is coming from Blacks, is the virulent nature of the attacks. We don't understand why Black Democrats and Black Republicans, liberals and conservatives should not be able to frankly disagree with one another but in a civil manner. The mockery, name-calling and lampooning that Rep. Watts, in particular has received at the hands of many Black voters is unjustified, in many respects, and also demonstrates the degree to which the elite partisan interests of a White-dominated leadership, in both major political parties, has triumphed over the bonds that naturally connect Black civil society. Quite simply, if there were not an "R" behind Rep. Watts' name he would not receive the brickbats that he has, by some.

We recognized the bankruptcy of aspects of the partisan loyalty over culture approach in the duplicity shown by Black and White Democrats in their handling of then-Senator John Ashcroft's nomination to become Attorney General. Mr. Ashcroft was raked over the coals for his having granted an interview to a Confederate-friendly publication, Southern Partisan magazine, while Blacks gave Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) a free pass when he used the phrase "nigger" on national television. Not to mention the fact that in his youthful years Senator Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Now, we asked the question earlier this year and we ask it again: Reverse the positions. Can any Black Democrat argue with credibility that Senator Ashcroft would not have been on the receiving end of one of the most strident public relation campaigns in recent memory, had he said what Senator Byrd did, in light of the Senator from West Virginia's past affiliation? The same groups that were front and center opposing Senator Ashcroft's nomination did not utter a word in reference to Senator Byrd, all because he wears a "D" after his name. And we still have yet to hear prominent Black Democrats honestly critique the impact of the Clinton presidency, which ended welfare, advocated "mending" affirmative action, and resulted in more Black men in jail than was the case under the administrations of both President Reagan and President Bush(41), combined. If Republican Presidents had aspects of the record that President Clinton did, they would be hated to no end. They certainly would not be allowed to wear the tag of "the first Black President". We think that Minister Louis Farrakhan articulated a fact when he told a packed Howard University audience in October of 1998 that President Clinton has been worse for Blacks than either President Bush (41) or President Reagan. Instead of an almost exclusive hurling of insults in the direction of Black Republicans, Black Democrats would be better served by making their own Party accountable to them for what they say and do by Black America.

That the Democrats take the Black vote for granted and do not properly respect Black leaders should be painfully obvious to even the most casual political observer at this point. What is more important, today, is for Black Democrats to determine a standard by which they will finally judge the policies and actions of the Democratic Party and the merits of an approach that has Blacks voting over 90% on behalf of one Party, only to quite often see the candidates that they support lose, and the issues they champion set aside in favor of those presented by interest groups that supply less votes and do infinitely less PR work and vote-gathering on behalf of that Party. Our judgment is that Black votes and Black legwork result in more gains for others in the Democratic Party coalition than they do for the Black electorate.

The Black electorate should recognize value in a Black lawmaker, like Rep. Watts, who is an advocate of less government intrusiveness and less government waste. Why should Rep. Bob Barr be the loudest and most vocal Republican expressing his concern for the invasion of civil liberties by the new laws being established to fight the war on terrorism? Because Rep. Barr is so unpopular, nationally, because of his role in impeaching President Clinton, Blacks can't benefit from the power of the Georgia Lawmaker's arguments, which are much more audible than what is coming from the majority of individual Congressional Black Caucus Members. Certainly Rep. John Conyers, among a few CBC members has done a magnificent job on this issue since September 11th. But because the Black electorate is so wedded to one political party, Black lawmakers and civic organizations, like the NAACP, which are heavily influenced by the Democratic Party establishment and a near-hatred of Republicans, shy away from working with a member of the GOP like Mr. Barr. But other interest groups have no such problem. That is why the ACLU is standing side-by-side with Rep. Barr, making powerful arguments on both sides of the political spectrum in their defense of civil liberties. We have determined that we would feel much more comfortable with Rep. J.C. Watts, on the Republican side, and the NAACP defending our civil liberties than Rep. Bob Barr and the ACLU, if we were given that option. With a lowering of the partisan rhetoric, which serves others outside of the Black community, and a little bit of cajoling, we think that one day we could see such an alliance. The Black electorate wastes an opportunity when it does not seek to challenge and persuade Rep. Watts to be responsive to their interests. Rep. Watts does not belong to the Republican Party. He is a member of the Black community, by birthright.

The Black electorate has to mature to the point where it makes the same supposedly strange political alliances within its own community that take place on a daily basis in other communities. Take for instance the support that Common Cause has given to Sen. John McCain on campaign finance; or the alliance between Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan on the issues of NAFTA and WTO. And even on the issue of "slavery in the Sudan", we have been struck by how easily Black civil rights leaders and Democrats have held hands with White conservatives in protest. Yet and still, these same Black civil rights leaders and Democrats who hold hands with some of the most strident arch-conservatives, over Sudan (conservatives who fight Blacks on issues like affirmative action, reparations, racial profiling and other civil rights issues - tooth and nail), can't seem to find common ground with Rep. Watts. Some of these Black lawmakers and opinion leaders who have boldly announce their agreement with White Republicans on issues concerning the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia, continue to disparage Congressman J.C. Watts. Something does not add up.

The Black electorate should recognize the value of a lawmaker who is the Conference Chairman of the House Republican Leadership, sits on the Armed Services Committee, the Military Readiness Subcommittee, the Procurement Subcommittee and the Special Oversight Panel On Terrorism. I have had the most sincere and committed Black progressives explain to me how important it is to have Blacks working "in the system". Such people have even persuasively argued why all Blacks benefit when individual Black Americans hold prominent positions in corporate America or government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). Why doesn't the same rationale apply to Rep. J.C. Watts - the only Black member of Congress who is in the Republican Party? What makes the Republican Party worse than the FBI or a Fortune 500 company, according to the worldview of the most liberal, radical and progressive who justifies Black involvement in the "system"? It would seem to us that Rep. Watts, on the margin, is even more important than the numerous Blacks that populate government agencies and corporate America. Why? Because Mr. Watts is all that we have in the Congressional leadership of the Republican Party. We ask any Black Democrat who has a problem with Mr. Watts or considers him to be an ineffectual GOP "token" to name a Black Democratic member of Congress who has as much influence in his or her Party as Mr. Watts does in his.

And as one considers all of this we ask that deep thought be given to these words, regarding their own Party, from members of the Congressional Black Caucus in an article in The Final Call newspaper called, "Lawmakers rip Democrats for plantation politics". The article was about a letter of complaint written by 19 members of the CBC addressed to the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association complaining about how Blacks are treated in the Party.

In the article the following quotes appear:

We need to take the gloves off and tell it straight," said Rep. Earl Hilliard, (D-Ala.). "The Democratic Party has discriminatory practices. Not only in their hiring practices but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is structured to discriminate. Were tired of being discriminated against and being taken for granted."

"We need to move beyond junior partner status," said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)

The Democratic Party will never be as great as it can until African Americans are true partners," warns Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Black Democratic congresswoman from Michigan. "We want to win but the win won’t happen if we’re not thoroughly involved. It is an advantage to the party to include us. The other party is recruiting heavily."

The Black electorate should recognize value in a politician who advocates that the tax code be used to reward risk-taking and entrepreneurship in a manner that makes capital and credit more plentiful in distressed rural and urban areas, increasing the capital to labor ratio. Although we disagreed with several points made by both men, we recognized the importance of the joint appearance on Crossfire by Rep. Charles Rangel and Rep. Watts back in October, where both men went back and forth over President Bush's economic stimulus package. The debate was good-spirited and frank with both men putting forth their arguments with clarity, intensity and good humor. The only thing that wasn't good about the forum was that it was taking place on CNN and not in a non-partisan forum in the Black community. That is where that debate and discussion is most needed. And that is why Rep. Watts is so valuable. He represents a voice of dissent among a Black political establishment that many in the Black community murmur and complain about but do not challenge publicly. What better way to make all Black political leaders accountable then by encouraging them all to work together on matters where they agree, and by demanding that they openly discuss and debate issues in an effort to reach a consensus that comes not from the highest levels of the non-Black Democratic and Republican Party establishments, but from the masses of urban and rural Black America. The Black community doesn't need Democratic and Republican talking points read to them. It needs to have an ongoing dialogue, with no preconditions or partisan and ideological barriers imposed by forces external to the community, with its elected officials.

We also saw the potential for this in another encounter between the New York Congressman and the Oklahoma Legislator when both men appeared on a Sunday morning talk show early this year at the height of the faith-based initiative discussions. Probing for contradictions and hypocrisy among Republicans on the execution of faith based initiatives; Rep. Rangel challenged Rep. Watts to let the Nation Of Islam be the litmus test for all proposed faith-based standards. Rep. Watts indicated that he had no problem with such an idea. Rep. Rangel then dove into a powerful explanation of how Republicans, particularly in 1994 and 1995 (led by Rep. Peter King of New York) had successfully worked to end the security contracts that members of the Nation of Islam had with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to patrol violence-ridden innercity neighborhoods. Rep. Rangel stated that the security teams, by all measures, performed excellent work, yet and still, Republicans led the effort to end the contracts. Rep. Watts firmly told Rep. Rangel that he was not a member of Congress when that effort began and picked up speed. The implication was clear: Rep. Watts was indicating that he might not have sided with Rep. King and other Republicans on the issue. But it was beautiful to see both men, Mr. Rangel and Mr. Watts speaking out of a recognition of Black life in the inner city and not as card-carrying, mindless talking-point readers of their respective political Parties.

The Black community, again, could have used a discussion between Rep. Watts and Rep. Rangel inside of the Black community regarding the faith-based initiative and the government's attitude toward Black groups that it may not like but which perform a needed service to the Black community. We all suffered by the manner in which the issue was railroaded by the Black civil rights and political establishment, who was largely doing the bidding of the Democratic Party's White secular humanists and civil libertarians coalition who, generally speaking, do not like religion. Certainly the majority of the Black community, although not monolithic, does not share these groups' problem with religion. And if the Black community were to be influenced by secular humanists and civil libertarians on the faith-based initiative, let it first be the product of an open debate in the Black community that includes a host of the most articulate Black atheists, secular humanists and civil libertarians. The manner in which Black Republicans, Black Democrats and Black Independents, in general, are intellectually deferential to their White colleagues is really humiliating and a reason for some of the disrespect that the entire Black community receives, from others.

The Black electorate should also recognize the potential for a Black Republican, like Rep. Watts, to influence U.S. foreign policy under a Republican administration. For over two weeks now we have been informed of a letter that the CBC has written President Bush regarding the worsening situation in Haiti. As of this writing, from what we understand, the Black Caucus has received no answer, as yet, from the President. But why, we wonder, hasn't Rep. J.C. Watts been asked, persuaded and publicly pressured by the CBC to follow-up on behalf of the Black electorate, who certainly is concerned about Haiti? Instead of allowing President Bush to ignore the CBC's pleas by using partisan devices, and the fact that their access to him is very limited (if that truly is the case) we would use the most prominent Black Republican in Congress to advance our arguments from within the GOP tent. In addition, why not demand a meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush, on Haiti, with only Rep. Watts and the CBC present? How could President Bush ignore a private and public plea from Rep. Watts regarding Haiti, without looking callous and disrespectful to the only Black Congressman in his Party and the Black electorate? Our mode and method of politics, as a community, has to evolve and mature.

The establishment of better relations between Rep. Watts and the CBC as well as a better understanding of the service that Rep. Watts can provide the Black electorate is critical as this country increasingly moves toward the center and away from the issues that Blacks have traditionally championed.

As the election of Governor Ventura, the popularity of Senator John McCain, the decision of Senator Jeffords to leave the Republican Party and the election of Republican Michael Bloomberg, with 25% of the Black vote, demonstrates, we are moving into an era where previously estranged political interests are increasingly becoming aligned in a variety of ways. Thinking of the value of Rep. J.C. Watts and the role he plays in the obtaining of the enlightened self-interest of the Black electorate is not only a politically astute and intellectually honest endeavor, but one that we believe will become more attractive with each passing day, for those with an open mind and the best interests of the Black community at heart.

Cedric Muhammad

Monday, December 3, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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