Exclusive Q&A With Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) Regarding The Black Vote and Political Realignment (Part 1)

While not as visible as others, Congressman Gregory Meeks is one of the most important members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the U.S. Congress. This fact became obvious, if it was not before, during last year's vote regarding U.S. trade relations with China. Rep. Meeks was arguably the most sought after vote on the issue, with powerful union and corporate interests inside and outside of his district, lobbying their causes and making their cases before the Black lawmaker. Mr. Meeks skillfully managed the tensions and navigated through the competing interests, and in the process further positioned himself as not only a leader in the U.S. Congress on trade issues, but also as one of a small group of political chess players in the Black political establishment, who place long-term objectives and strategy over short-term sound bites and photo-opportunities.

In our preliminary discussions with members of Congressman Meeks' staff regarding this interview, we intended to cover a wide range of issues but gradually realized that one of the most pressing subjects in Black America, especially in the aftermath of the 2000 elections, warranted almost the exclusive attention of BlackElectorate.com publisher, Cedric Muhammad, and Congressman Meeks, in their eventual meeting and discussion. It was determined that the subject of the state of the Black electorate, its relationship with the two-Party system and the potential, likelihood and rumblings of political realignment deserved the undivided attention of the interview.

In this exclusive two-part interview, we talk, in depth, with Congressman Meeks about this vast subject and the implications of recent events connected with it; as career politicians, political consultants and grassroots activists all gear up for the mid-term elections this fall.

We think that by the end of the interview, which follows below, you may agree with us, that whether one accepts his arguments or not, Congressman Gregory Meeks, promises to play an important role in the future direction and evolution of the Black electorate - as a vocal advocate, active legislator and political chess player.

Cedric Muhammad: Congressman Meeks, how would you characterize the state of the relationship between the Black electorate and the Democratic Party?

Congressman Meeks: I think that the Black electorate now is paying more attention to the Democratic Party and the issues for which the Democratic Party stands.  I think that overall the Black electorate is becoming more educated and more wise.  As a result, we have a good relationship and we understand who we are and where we are in the Party.  We are in fact the base of the Party and because we are the base of the Party that should give us leverage on advancing the issues that are important to our agenda.  I think that is basically where we are. If you take the events of Florida and more recently New York as an example, I think that you will see that more individuals are speaking out and saying 'look we are at this table and we want to be sure that our issues are heard.'

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think in the scheme of things, since the time of President Roosevelt, that the relationship between the Black electorate and the Democratic Party has gotten stronger?  How would you characterize the relationship in 2001 as opposed to 1961 or 1941?

Congressman Meeks: I definitely think that our relationship with the Democratic Party has gotten stronger.  Primarily, to be quite honest with you, it is because of the absolute neglect of the Republican Party.  It has gotten stronger not just because of African-Americans liking the Democratic Party, but also because the Democratic Party has been the Party that has addressed issues that were of concern to us while the Republican Party has not.  In the 1960 presidential election, no one knew which way Dr. King was going to go - whether he was going to go for Nixon or whether he was going to go for Kennedy, but with his decision would follow the balance of the Black vote. It wasn't that the Democratic Party as a whole was strongly in our favor, it was just that, at that time, in the civil rights movement, Kennedy addressed more issues that were of concern to Dr. King and the civil rights movement, and the Black vote moved in that same direction. And then in the following election with Goldwater at the forefront, the Republican Party went completely to the right and the Democrats solidified their role as the Party that began to address civil rights issues and other issues of immediate concern to the African-American community and the relationship with the Democratic Party became closer and stronger.  And now, past the civil rights movement, through the 70s and on into this new millennium, I think African-Americans are beginning to look and say 'now we have other issues that are not civil rights issues and we want to know when the Party is going to address those issues as well'.  And much of what remains has to deal with economics and the revitalization of urban America, and Black communities.  And so, again, we now want to make sure that the Democratic Party is going to address those issues. And the big question before us today is whether we in the Party will move in those directions and adequately address such issues or will we open the door giving another Party an opportunity to address those things that are not being done by us. So I think, in the long run, that this is a positive situation because your vote can't be taken for granted and it gives the opportunity for the Democratic Party to move to what I think is the second phase of the civil rights movement which I think has a lot to do with the role that economics plays in the development of communities and self-sufficiency.

Cedric Muhammad: And what about the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), does the CBC have the influence that it should at this stage in the relationship between Blacks and the Democratic Party?

Congressman Meeks :There is no question that the Congressional Black Caucus is a powerful group of men and women and that we have the ability to force the Party to move in a variety of ways. But let me be clear that our power emanates from our constituents. Because that is what gives us the power where we can go and tell the Democratic Party what is happening in the districts. And if we are the base of the Party, we can go to them and say 'this is what's happening in the districts', and as a result, they can't afford to lose us so our voice and our leverage then becomes tremendous and we can make the difference as to whether or not people lose in a a lot of races. You can go to not only the districts where members of the CBC represent, but there are also certain districts where there is a 10 to 20% African-American vote, which represents the deciding margin as to whether or not someone gets re-elected. We have the opportunity and the ability and influence to go into these districts and make a difference in these races and we can then say to the Democratic Party, 'if you want us to do this, here is what we need. Here are the agenda items that are important to us' and they then have to be incorporated within the Democratic platform. I think to a large degree because of our constituency and because of the people, we are beginning to move in that direction because they (Party establishment) understand that the Democratic Party cannot succeed without us.

Cedric Muhammad: In light of that argument I think we just saw a magnificent microcosm of all of the controversy, problems, and tensions that exist between the Democratic Party and the Black electorate in New York - in both the Democratic gubernatorial primary and in the mayoral campaign, where 25% of the Black vote went to Mr. Bloomberg, not because Mr. Bloomberg was responsive to the "Black" issues but largely because of the impression of how certain Black opinion leaders like Rev. Sharpton were handled throughout the campaign. What did you get out of the Republican, Michael Bloomberg, becoming the mayor of New York and the high Black voter turnout that usually goes Democratic but actually supported Mr. Bloomberg as a Republican and even, significantly, on the Independent line?

Congressman Meeks: I think again that people basically were saying that they were not going to be insulted. They were saying, 'don't think that you can just insult me and I don't have any alternative but to just vote for you. If you handle us like that we'll just do something else'. I think that it is saying that, in the Carl McCall situation,which is brewing in the New York gubernatorial race, we have played the game by the rules. And as a result of playing the game in an honest and open fashion, we have developed our politicians, and one has arisen from among us, in McCall and therefore we in the Party should surround him because he has all of the qualifications. There is no excuse. And we are being assertive about that. Just as we have supported others, I think that we have got to understand that there is a delicate balance that we are working with, as we advocate that the Party support qualified African-American candidates. And the message is particularly being sent to the executive branches of government - the mayors, the governors and even the President of the United States - folks are saying we are going to be looking at the heads of government at all levels, and those among us who are qualified to hold elected office. And specifically at the local levels, we are moving in a way that to me demonstrates our evolving political sophistication. There are connections and networks that are established in and through local elections and political maneuvering and because right now, due to the relationship that we have had with the Democratic Party, many of us that are in positions of seniority in local government and otherwise, are African-Americans, with most of the processes in local politics revolving around a (protocol) where you move up in rank largely because of seniority. And this is also the case at the national level. This is all beginning to serve our interests as never before. And by staying Democratic and supporting the Party we can bring about advancement that we have not seen before. For example, with the Congressional Black Caucus, there are many members who would be chairs of committees and chairs of subcommittees if the Democratic Party takes back control of the House of Representatives. Because this is the case, when we in Congress are voting on a legislative platform or when elections for Congress occur across the country, it is important that Democratic unity is there because even though you may have a Democrat who is somewhat to the right, by them being there, as opposed to someone else, that means that a person of color will be in power to chair a committee, so we understand that and are willing to go out and support that particular Democrat who is more to the right. However, when it comes to the governor or mayoral race, folks who are looking closely are saying to the candidates, ' let me see what you are saying, and if you are in line with the issues that we have before you, and we may or may not decide to go with you because of Party'. This is sophisticated. And this is the kind of message and strategy among African-Americans, that I am starting to hear of more frequently. This means that that the Democratic National Committee has to consider all of this and work to adequately address this situation, between now and the next presidential election if the Party is to be unified and successful. I say that even though I think President Bush, in and of himself, is going to say and do things that will help further the cause of the Democratic Party. If that is the case we will be allright come 2004, even with these internal (dynamics).

Cedric Muhammad: But what is the litmus test for determining the point where you would say that the relationship between the Black electorate and its leadership and the Democratic Party has reached the phase of diminishing returns? For instance, there was a letter that several members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to the Democratic National Committee and signed. And this was right around the time that Terry McAuliffe had the challenge from Maynard Jackson in the race for chairman of the Democratic Party. When I looked at that letter and read the list of grievances that leading Black Democrats were giving their Party establishment and compared that list with the reasons that Senator Jeffords gave for leaving the Republican Party, I thought that the Black Democrats had an even stronger case for leaving their Party than did Senator Jeffords. Do you think that at this point a departure from the Party by a significant level of Blacks is justified and would such an exodus, in your opinion, be part of a strategy that has wisdom in it, as people work to gain more respect for the Black vote?

Congressman Meeks: Well that is what I think that it is. It is the wisdom in getting more respect for the Black vote. We as a people have never been ones to say that we are going to be quiet just in order to get along. We, Black Democrats are saying that we are going to prod and push and make this Party change because that is the Party that we belong in. So it is our responsibility to ensure that our issues are addressed. I think that as a result of a power that we do have, we can, and and we have, compelled the Party into directions that it probably would not have moved if we had not prodded and made the noise that we made. And we continue to do so, in an internal way. And I think that approach has worked for the better, for our communities and our constituencies. We must make our voices heard. And see, for a a while, people thought that we just had no other place to go. They are not so sure anymore, and I don't know that that is necessarily a bad thing. Having said that I do think that the other Party clearly is not addressing any of our issues. Clearly where we are concerned, they just do window dressing but because that is the case that does not mean that we should not fight, prod and push ahead and do the right thing for our Party.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that can be done without a confrontation taking place between Black Democrats and an organization like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) who we have identified as being much of the inspiration behind the movement away from issues that are important to the Black electorate, inside of the Democratic Party?

Congressman. Meeks: I think that in any good family there are clashes within the family and you deal with those issues. You don't ignore them because if you do the situation only becomes worse and I think that is what is happening here. So I think that we will have clashes within the family now, but that doesn't mean that we are breaking up or that we are asking for a divorce or anything of that nature, but we are going to give our point of view and we are going to fight for our way so that our issues are known. And we will resolve the issues from within. But I don't think that we are anywhere near to the point, right now, where we are arguing all of the time and ready for a divorce. I don't see a breakup as our priority but I do see internal struggles and internal battles within the Democratic Party.

End Of Part 1 Of Interview

Tuesday, January 8, 2002