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New CBC Chairman Seeks ‘New Day’ with Bush
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 12/16/2004

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – U. S. Rep. Melvin L. “Mel” Watt (D-N.C.), who will become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus next month, has pledged to reach out to the Bush administration.

“I’m going to ask for a series of meetings, for regular meetings with him as we have historically had the relationship with some presidents and thought that we were going to have that relationship with him,” Watt says in an NNPA New Service interview. “The president has indicated it’s a new day. It’s a new administration. He’s the same person he was before the election. But there’s a freshness of attitude that comes with a new administration, we hope.”

Former CBC Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), now ending his two-year tenure, often complained that Bush has not met with the Caucus since an initial meeting with Johnson in early 2001, soon after his election. Other civil rights groups, including the NAACP, have also accused the president of refusing to meet with people who oppose his conservative agenda.

Departing NAACP President Kweisi Mfume recently wrote Bush a letter, requesting a meeting. There has been no official response.

But in a speech immediately after his re-election, Bush made overtures toward those that voted against him, saying, “I will need your support, and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation.”

Watt says that the CBC, called the “conscience of the Congress,” will push for a meeting with the conservative president, but will not compromise its agenda. Generally, the agenda includes ending racial disparities between Black and White Americans, says the native of Charlotte, N.C. After Watt takes office on Jan. 4, the CBC will go to a retreat on Jan. 5 to establish specific priority issues. After that, they will send a proposed legislative package to the president.

“It will say, ‘Mr. President, this is our agenda. We desire to meet with you on this agenda,’” Watt says. “If he doesn’t support it, then we’ve reached out to him, we’ve made our affirmative steps to him and then we’d have to go to Plan B … But I’m not presuming that we’ll have to go to Plan B.”

Progress has been slow for the Black Caucus, whose legislations calling for the end to mandatory minimum sentences, predatory lending and disparities in crack and cocaine sentencing have never even made it out of committees.

Watt, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, the Financial Services Committee and the Joint Economic Committee, says because the Caucus is unwilling to compromise principles of justice by introducing soft legislation, even small victories are few and far between.

“Our mission is to eliminate the disparities that exist between African-Americans and White Americans on just about every criterion that you could possibly identify. So, that would be in education. That would be in health care and health care outcomes. That would be in criminal justice and prosecutions and sentencing. It would be in incomes and employment. I mean, you think of a criterion, there is a disparity. The president will have plenty of opportunities to work with us.”

The racial disparities are many:

• The high school graduation rate for Whites remains 12 percentage points higher than Blacks.

• Of the 15 leading causes of death in America, Blacks lead in 11 categories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Research by the University of Minnesota recently found that 18 percent of working African-Americans have no health care, compared to 11 percent of working Whites.

• Less than 50 percent of African-American homeowners, compared to 70 percent for Whites.

• Approximately 4,810 Black males per 100,000 are incarcerated compared to 549 per 100,000 White males, a difference of nearly 776 percent. Approximately 349 Black females per 100,000 are incarcerated, compared to 66 per 100,000 for White women, a difference of nearly 429 percent, according to the National Urban League’s Institute for Opportunity and Equality in Washington, D.C.

• The median income for Black families, $43,938 is 37 percent lower than the median income for White families, $69,856.

• This month, the Black unemployment rate remains at 10.8 percent, more than double the 4.7 percent rate of Whites.

Not only did the Democrats fail to defeat Bush on Nov. 2, but they also failed to win majorities in the House and Senate, meaning there will be great struggle to achieve political agreement.

“There’s not a choice. They have to reach out,” says Kathie Golden, political science professor at Mississippi Valley State University. “If they are going to stand a chance of getting any legislation either on the floor or in committee, obviously, they can’t just rely on the Democrats. We have to be strategic about acquiring support and we also have to be strategic about how we go about trying to assure that the modest gains we’ve made are not taken away. The CBC has to come out with a strategy that they can live with, even if just to ask the Republicans to listen to them.”

Under his leadership, Watt says the CBC will not only reach out to the White House for help, but across the political aisles in Congress.

“Our whole agenda is [not] focused at the president cooperating with us,” he says. “We’ll be reaching out to the Republican and Democratic leadership in the House and the Republican and Democratic leadership in the Senate.”

Watt expressed hope that freshman Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), one of four new members of the CBC, will be helpful on the Senate side. Obama’s election makes him only the third African-American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction.

“I think we’ll be able to mobilize the Senate in ways that we have not been able to since we had a member of the Senate as a member of the Caucus,” Watt says.

The new CBC members, to be sworn in Jan. 4, are: Obama, Gwendolynne Moore of Wisconsin, Al Green of Texas, and Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

Watt says the now 43-member Caucus will also reach out to community groups.

“I think it’s our responsibility to work with, provide ideas or support to other organizations who are working on similar agendas, such as state legislators, civil rights groups, faith organizations, ministers, fraternities and sororities,” Watt says.

But first, the Caucus itself must pull together, he says.

“The first issue that I’m dealing with is trying to coalesce the Black Caucus around a set of issues. We want a collective agenda. That’s important to our effectiveness,” he says. “If we are voting together, if we are acting together, if we are supporting each other, it is a tremendous force.”


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