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Exclusive Q&A With Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) Regarding The Black Vote And Political Realignment (Part 2)

Cedric Muhammad: Let's move to the subject of broader coalition building. Since the 2000 census results were released there is talk almost everywhere of a "Black-Brown" coalition. This is now the hot issue, almost everywhere that you go. How do you feel about it? How can such a coalition be built properly that benefits both groups?

Rep. Meeks: Well, clearly, I was a supporter of Fernado Ferrer, early on. The two groups have more in common than opposite each other. And I think that in a city like New York City, a mentality has to change. We call ourselves minorities but in New York City we are actually the majority so we have to stop using a minority mentality and use a majority mentality and it will make all of the difference in the world. And when we do that it is not an "anti-anything" movement because folks are coming together. With this coming together you can broaden the coalition to include other folks and work for the betterment of the city. Coalitions are always like that. When the Irish and Italians came together it was never a problem and the same has taken place with Jews and Italians and there have been certain coalitions where coalitions were built simply for the benefit of those groups and whoever else they added on. Well, in the history and evolution of New York, because of the population, there should be a coalition between African-Americans and Latinos where we look at local and national issues where we see our interests, see eye-to-eye , come together and utilize our strengths and get other people of goodwill to join in. And it is not even really a racially-based movement as opposed to an issue-based movement. And it just so happens that the issues that our two communities have are a common thread and so, anyone else who has those same issues can become part of that coalition. I don't want folks to say its a racial thing. Its an issue thing.

Cedric Muhammad: How do the Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus work together? Are your two groups doing things that would set an example for everyone else?

Rep. Meeks: Yes and we are talking about getting even closer. We have our separate meetings but then we try to meet once or twice a year to talk about the issues that we have collectively. There maybe a special bill that is on the floor and we may talk about that and make sure that we vote in bloc. I think that we still have some better relationship building to do but I see that happening in the future because we are talking more and more to one another about the issues that we are confronted with here in the United States Congress.

Cedric Muhammad: If we are looking at the Black Caucus as an inclusive body with the common denominator being that the members are Black and Congressional representatives, do you think that the CBC would be better served by the inclusion of Rep. J.C. Watts as an official member. Do you see benefits if such were to occur for the entire Black electorate?

Rep. Meeks: Well I believe it is J.C. Watts' choice to not be a member of the Caucus. He has not been precluded by Party from being a member, it is his choice to not be a member. So, if he wanted to become an active member, he very well could. I will tell you that there are certain issues and certain times that members of the CBC may go to J.C. And say, "J.C., we are trying to get something done, can you work it for us from the other side?". And sometimes he has and sometimes he hasn't so it is not a matter that because he is a Republican that he is not a member of the Caucus, it is a matter of his choice.

Cedric Muhammad: But with him being the only Black Republican in Congress, do you think that maybe it is even incumbent upon the Caucus to even publicly challenge Rep. Watts to be on board? Do you think that now we have reached the point of maturation and even sophistication where we actually need you all to work with him and vice-versa.

Rep. Meeks: I think that on those occasion where he has agreed to work with us, we have reached out and we have asked him but sometimes his hands are cuffed. And it is important to understand that what happens on the other side is that because they have only one Black Republican they try to utilize him, but still control what he does and doesn't do. So, he is very limited. You only have to look at votes that we have on the floor on a regular basis where the Republican Party's Whip comes around on a vote. Whether people believe in an issue or not, they make sure that the member votes the way that the Party wants them to vote. Therefore it is hard to deal with someone on that basis where we know that maybe their heart may be in a different place; they may want to do something but what they are allowed to do is very limited. As opposed to having our issues misrepresented or diluted I would rather fight to do what we have to do to try to win back the majority. Why J.C. has importance right now is simply because the Republican Party is in control of the House and that is the major piece of the (political power structure). So, for me the focus is to win back the House and this is the message that I think has to get out. We'd have John Conyers as Chair of the Judiciary and Charlie Rangel as chair of all of the money at Ways and Means, and Maxine Waters becomes chair of a major subcommittee on financial services and I could go on and on and on in showing who the people would be who would be setting policy for the United States of America. That's where the focus should be as opposed to trying to win some other folks on the other side.

Cedric Muhammad: I am so pleased that you said that because on our website we endorsed Ralph Nader for President but we also as prominently endorsed a Democratic House because we wanted what you just described to happen in 2000. That was the decision that we made but what we noticed was that for the CBC and Black opinion leaders, getting Al Gore into the White House took precedence, disproportionately, in our opinion over the other interests that we identified for the Black community, including getting CBC members into the chair positions you just mentioned. So for example even though Ralph Nader was the only presidential candidate who publicly supported reparations, Rep. Conyers, who agrees with him on that issue had to shout him down because the goal was to get Al Gore into the White House. As we approach 2002 and as you work to support that initiative of getting the Black Caucus into key chair positions over House committee and sub committees as a result of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, are we going to be a little more mindful of this so that we don't...

Rep. Meeks: See here is the point, and I hear you loud and clear. In the Ralph Nader and Al Gore situation and us winning back the House, some people vote straight Democratic, some split their vote and others are in between which is going to hurt. Then there is the question of Nader, Gore and Bush. I disagreed with's endorsement. Did Nader represent some issues that were important to us and that related to our agenda? No one can deny that to a large degree he did. Could Nader actually win the office of the Presidency, in America, is another question. And then what is the difference between George Bush and Al Gore? And what would happen if Bush was the President as opposed to Gore as president? That made all of the difference in the world. Because from my legislative position, if Gore was the President of the United States, as when Clinton was President, I could pick up the phone and call and have an impact as to who was appointed to Secretarial positions with the President as well as the policies. With George Bush as President I have nothing. And so for me and I think for our community, given just that scenario, it was more important to make sure that we elected Al Gore as opposed to George Bush. And by George Bush being there now what we are forced to do is react all of the time, as opposed to initiating the act. With Al Gore we could have have been the initiators and compelled other individuals to react. As we move into 2004, it is important that we have a large voice and say in the Democratic Primaries. And that is where we begin to advance issues and where we fight and try to get a candidate. But right now based upon what the platform is overall, and the stakes that one has to win or lose, for me, it is much better to have an Al Gore who I can relate to, who I know that I can get on the phone and I will have a say in his appointments and who I know therefore will be more accountable to my community.

Cedric Muhammad: To a large extent I agree with you. The reason that we did what we did and others agreed with our reasoning for doing such was that we felt that the Black establishment's support of Al Gore was disproportionate, meaning that we didn't mind the support for Al Gore per se, but we felt that if it meant shouting down reparations because Al Gore didn't strongly support it, or if it meant quieting some of the advocacy for ending racial profiling because Al Gore gave rhetroic to the issue but didn't want to follow the lead of Black leaders on acting on the issue in specific ways; then it wasn't worth it. And we also rejected the thesis that Al Gore's coattails were needed for Democrats to win back control of the House. What we envisioned happening with President Bush in office is that Black issues would die, so we advocated for the support of Black issues, first and foremost rather than political personalities. In supporting Al Gore the way that Blacks did we not only lost the presidency, but we also marginalized our own issues and excused the Democratic Party's lack of responsiveness to those issues by quieting dissent and supporting the moderate and watered-down way in which Senator Lieberman and Vice-President Gore ran their campaign. Do you think this is something that we need to be mindful of in the future and why should we equate getting CBC members in these committee positions with getting the Democratic presidential nominee into the White House?

Rep. Meeks: Well, hear this, and you just touched the basis of it, because Al Gore, even where his platform was weak, had we taken back the House, he then, when we talk about our internal fights, he still would have had to deal with the bills that John Conyers, as Judiciary chair, would have forced out of his committee and therefore now we have more leverage from within to deal with the executive to make something real and to have something supported. But now with John Conyers, as a ranking member as opposed to a chairman,and Republicans in control of the House, we can't even rent a rule, we can't get anything and can't even get an audience. And even if Rep. Conyers was chairman, with President Bush there, it is easy for Bush just to veto and for us to not have any say and we have no leverage on him but if we had elected Gore with John Conyers there we have the leverage to move the dialogue and to move the presidency in the direction that we want and that is all that we can ask for in the political system because what happens is there are very few things that happen in a year. The political process at times, moves at a snail's pace. And you have got to push and prod. If you just look at the civil rights movement it took years, ending apartheid in South Africa and what we did here, as far as the embargo - it took years. We get a move here and a slot here and we just keep pushing. It is almost like playing chess, you strategically make a move and you don't want your opponent to see the reason for your movement because you are thinking ten moves down and that is what this political game is, it is a chess game.

Cedric Muhammad: I want to stay on this point because this is so important. There were those who thought like we at did; there are those who thought like you and there are still those in the middle of the two of us. Our position is that we have enough evidence to justify not having to support a president over supporting the issues that the Black community can recognize as its own. So we identified 10 issues and saw agreement with Mr. Nader on at least 6 of those. The responsiveness and the access argument, isn't it a little weak in light of what happened in Florida? How responsive was Gore to the concerns of certain Black Caucus members that I know, civil rights leaders and even Rev. Jackson, who told him that if he would include Duval County and the overvote issue in his arguments before the Supreme Court he would win? Now I was told point blank by Blacks at the DNC as well as Caucus members that Al Gore totally ignored them. So that act cost Blacks a sympathetic ear in the White House and it was a demonstration of disrespect for an entire people. So how much faith should we have in the argument that we should support Democrats because they are more responsive to us and we have better access to them?

Rep. Meeks: Let me just say this. What you are talking about happened after the fact as opposed to before the fact. I don't think it should have been that close in Florida. If you are asking me did Gore run a poor campaign, I would say, in my estimation that he did. It was his to lose and he lost it. But what happened in Duval County and the judgment that was utilized after the fact is different. I think that we should have never been there. In other words, clearly I wanted every vote counted and Gore got pressure from the media and going by polls as they always do, but when I look at the Gore numbers, and the number of Blacks that were turned away, which is why the Congressional Black Caucus has not stopped talking about election reform as a whole and not just the votes that were mis-counted...I am talking about the people that were denied the right to vote in the first place! That is what has to change. There were so many people turned away and so many things that were done there - setting up police road blocks and things of that nature that are basic to one's right to vote. The Congressional Black Caucus has to keep fighting over this. It would have been easier had all of the votes been counted and Al Gore would have been President and we would have that leverage. He chose not to do it. But had we not, and I am not criticizing

Cedric Muhammad: Please, go right ahead, we've heard worse...

Rep. Meeks: But had we not had Ralph Nader in the picture...

Cedric Muhammad: And the 3 million votes he received...

Rep. Meeks: Then we would not even have been talking about that situation!

(laughter from both Cedric Muhammad and Congressman Meeks)

Cedric Muhammad: Are there any last words that you have for our viewers? Is there anything that you want our readers to know of what you are doing or what we should be thinking about as a community?

Rep. Meeks: My biggest concern with what took place in Florida and what took place in New York, especially with our young people, is that we don't get turned off from politics and say that it doesn't make a difference and therefore I am not going to get involved in the system. That is directly what the enemy would want you to do. So I think that what should happen is just the opposite. That we should be so upset with what took place in Florida and New York that you say I am going to be more involved than ever before to make the difference in support of what I want to happen. Because you can only change it if you are involved in it. But if you step back from it you lose and you don't have a shot. I think that is the one message that I would like to get out.

Cedric Muhammad: Thank You Congressman, we appreciate it.

Rep. Meeks: Thank you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

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