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Interview With Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS.)

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson is one of the strongest voices among the members of the Congressional Black Caucus. A member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1993, Rep. Thompson's influence has grown over the years, not only because he sits on the powerful Agricultural and Budget Committees, but also because of his willingness to champion causes that may or may not pay a direct political dividend. Those who know him say that Rep. Thompson is as quick to rally to an obscure local cause as he is to sponsor legislation of national prominence. Recently, Rep. Thompson spoke to about his legislative priorities, political philosophy and his recent meeting with Fidel Castro. Here is Part 1 of our exclusive conversation with one of the most intelligent and controversial members of the U.S. Congress.

CM: First, Congressman, What are your top priorities, legislatively?

Rep. Thompson: Legislatively, as you know, we've been dealing with relief for the Black farmers. That has been a continuous effort as it related to the discrimination they suffered at the hands of the Department of Agriculture. We've some 20,000 plus farmers who have filed for relief through a lawsuit that was ultimately made possible by legislation we got put in, moving the statute of limitations requirement. We have some farmers who have gotten as little as $50,000 and some who have gotten as much as $800,000 in claim, and obviously some who weren't able to prove discrimination, but at least we got them a hearing, which most of them would not have gotten had it not been for the work of the (Congressional Black) Caucus. Additionally, we have pursued getting educational opportunities increased for students. We've gotten Pell Grant amounts increased so they can get an education; we've worked on a deductibility of $500 additionally for students who go to college; we have been able to get monies for wiring schools for the Internet through the E-Rate program. Let me say a lot of what we do is done through the framework of the Congressional Black Caucus. It is tough individually to pursue any single issue here without the help of the Caucus Democrats and some of the Republicans - the notion being that as the minority party in Congress it is tough because the Republicans are in charge. Many of the things that Democrats and Blacks have a deep and abiding commitment to the Republicans could care less: affirmative action, equal opportunity, health benefits for all. Recently, [we worked on] a prescription drug bill that still won't provide for the neediest of people in this country an opportunity to get drugs. So what we have is a struggle that we continue to work on. One issue that I am going to pursue is why service stations located in the inner city or in the Black community charge one price for gas, and I can go find that same service station in the suburbs and they charge another price. I probably wouldn't have as much problem with it, but the price that they charge in the inner city is higher than the price they charge in the suburbs. So it is an indirect correlation between the price. Do you understand what I'm saying? The poorest folks are paying the highest price, and the richest people are paying the lowest price. We're pursuing why that happens. Everything I get smacks of racism, so we will probably be filing a bill along with some other people making that illegal. Sort of like an insurance company charging one price for property insurance -- you know, one company just paid out a big settlement for doing that same thing.

CM: And some of the banks...

Rep. Thompson: Right. I am convinced that we can prevent that from happening because there is an economic as well as a racial identification associated with that, so we are going to pursue that. That is part of what we call 'common sense legislation.' In addition to that, we are trying to get more African Americans appointed to the Judiciary as well as oppose some bad people who are being put up. The President just announced today another person being nominated to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. We also found out that somebody we were opposing for the Fifth Circuit won't be put forth. We struggle day by day. We are talking to Black employees at the Department of Agriculture who feel like they're being discriminated against. It is not just the farmers being discriminated against; it is the employees. We're talking to Black college presidents about getting more money for their college. We're talking to Black business people about how we can help them get more business with the government, because it is getting harder and harder for minority business to do business with the government, yet and still we have all these rules on the book. Somehow Black businesses just can't access the business, so we're going to pursue that as well as our normal day-to-day constituent services that we provide.

My district is one of the larger congressional districts in Congress. I think I have the largest of any member of the Congressional Black Caucus. My district is 280 miles long, and it is 180 miles wide at its widest point. I have five offices in the district and I still have some gaps. I have only one commercial airport that only takes props (it doesn't take jet commercial services). Even to go to my district by jet service I either have to land in Memphis, Tennessee or in Jackson, Mississippi, which technically is another congressional district, and then I have to do a heck of a lot of driving. It is the third poorest congressional district in America. Children die faster in my congressional district than they die in the two other congressional districts. We have the highest sexually transmitted disease rate of any congressional district in the country. Just a lot of things, but all of it is associated with poverty and racism. When you have both of them existing, you have a situation like we have. The majority of young people who get an education in my congressional district, Black and White, leave because of the lack of opportunity. That outward migration and the continued brain drain my district suffers, even in the new millennium. In spite of that, we're struggling.

I am the lead plaintiff now in the Ayers case, which is a lawsuit that was filed in 1976 to equalize higher education among Blacks and Whites, and we're still trying to deal with that. To get a professional degree in Mississippi you have to go to a White school. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer or public health specialist -- any of the professional degrees that lead toward making a better than average income -- you have to go to a White school. Yet, over 40 percent of our population is African American. That, in a nutshell, is why we pursue that course of action in a lawsuit. If you talk to the Whites in Mississippi they will tell you, "You can go to any school you want to; we don't see race." Biggest lie ever told. So sometimes you have to pursue the way you're going. Additionally, we have discrimination complaints filed against the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Mississippi Department of Transportation and Mississippi Department of Labor because Mississippi is the only state in the nation that doesn't have a state department of labor. They can't investigate discrimination complaints, so we have to do it at the federal level. That is why I have to file the complaints, because there is nowhere in state government for a citizen of Mississippi to file a discrimination claim. That is why the backlog is so great with complaints, because the burden at the federal level is double what it should be because there is nobody at the state level. It is a struggle. We have accepted the challenge and moved forward with it. Every now and then you win one, and you feel good about it. But once you look at the burden, you know it is a big hill to climb.

CM: How did you make out with the flag issue and your resolution placed before Congress to condemn the Confederate Flag?

Rep. Thompson: As you know, I do not fly the Mississippi flag in my office. It is absolutely void. Before I came to Washington I was one of those folks that sued the State of Mississippi to try to do away with the flag because of what it symbolized. Really, the decision of the court (doing away with the Confederate flag in Mississippi because it had never been formally adopted) was one of those lawsuits, again, that I had been a plaintiff in before I came here. It would have been inconsistent for me to come here and fly the Mississippi flag when I'm trying to do away with it. Believe it or not, a lot of folk had problems with that. "You know, he doesn't even fly the Mississippi flag." I guess they were trying to say I was some sort of communist or anti-Mississippi. But, you know, you don't have to fly the flag here unless you want to; there's no requirement. I am not the only one who doesn't fly the flag, but I am the only person as far as White folk are concerned. So we deal with it. We followed the Confederate flag issue in South Carolina as well as the debate in other areas. We felt that as an expression, filing this resolution would more or less put us on record as being against it because of what it represents. Well, sometimes the idea is good but the will of the majority is not. Obviously we're not able to get the full airing simply because Republicans are in charge. They are the ones who defended the Council of Conservative Citizens, as well as any other issue that involves race. Clearly the flag is a problem. Symbols and everything associated with the Confederate flag is bad, so why should we put it in any position of honor or any position that would make it more than what it is? Our objective is to continue to be against it.

CM: It seemed that most Blacks were more comfortable dealing with the flag issue on cultural terms, economic boycotts or public demonstrations. But when it came to political approaches, it seemed your support level dropped dramatically - what happened?

Rep. Thompson: It is still a tough situation for a lot of African Americans to step up to the plate and be identified. They always come and say, "Hey man, I'm with you." Or they will call on the phone and say, "I'm with you, but don't let anybody know." Do you know what I'm saying? Even in 2000 there are Black people who are reluctant to take positions against evil and wrong. Many of those people are in positions of responsibilities and authority who really got there because of the sacrifices made by Black people before them. That is a disappointment. But in this institution, we just live to fight another day, but you never forget.

CM: Another hot topic: Cuba. I haven't seen much on record (about the trip) other than the statement you put out. I know you just went down there. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Fidel Castro offer medical assistance to help you in your district because of the health problems that your constituents are having down there and because Cuba is known to have an excellent healthcare system?

Rep. Thompson: Yes. The visit to Cuba was eye-opening. I had never been in a non-racial country in my life where race was not a predominate factor in day-to-day activities. That was, to me, timely, coming from the South and coming out of a time period that was very tumultuous for Black people, and still struggling, even though I'm a member of Congress. You still get subjected to things just because you're Black. It is those kinds of things that remind you, no matter how much you achieve, that you are going to have difficulty. So that visit to Cuba, looking at his health system and some other things, I had an opportunity to talk to President Castro, who knew as much about my congressional district and the problems that I had to contend with as any other foreign -- or for that matter -- public official not born in my district. So that was good. We discussed my district and what problems I have to deal with quite often. The offer to educate students in a medical school in Cuba was made by President Castro, and we are very actively pursuing this to the point that I've just had a meeting with the Minister of Health of Cuba to continue that discussion and to try and make sure that my country will recognize people who graduate from Cuban medical school here. I'm making sure of all that before we take it.

I look at it like this: every county I represent is short of doctors and nurses. I have a lot of kids who would like to go to medical school who have been unsuccessful in getting in. Here is an opportunity to fill that void. If President Castro is the only somebody to step up to the plate, then the question is whether I'm going to play politics or whether I'm going to represent a demonstrated need for the people of my district. Everybody that I've shared the offer with in my district said "take it."

Everybody that I talked about on my position with regard to Elian going back home, they said he needed to be in Cuba with his father. These are not wild-eyed radicals that I talked to; these were grandmothers and great-grandmothers and grandfathers. Who are we to say who a child should be with? The absurdity of it. If anything, the people in South Florida, Miami, were really playing politics with this young boy's life. They didn't care about Elian. The statement that one [person] made yesterday, 'He's not going home to be with his father; he's going home to be with Castro'-- to some degree, you don't even try to respond to statements made by people who are obviously irrational. A lot of what I heard and saw, by the people who wanted to take the case, that they "loved Elian" was absolutely opposite.

CM: Specifically, what went on [the week of June 26] on this issue regarding sanctions on food and medicine placed upon Cuba? I understand that though the food embargo was lifted there were still some conditions placed on Cuba...

Rep. Thompson: There were, and obviously it is our hope that the Senate will clean it up and ultimately, in conference, [resolve it]. You know, you can't be half anything to really make it work. They never cut amendment. When I started it was good, but obviously you still can't travel to Cuba to finance certain products and supplies. To try to put restrictions on that really limits how much business Cuba can actually do with this country. Obviously, we have quite a bit of work to do on the Senate side. I think ultimately that will happen. The Republicans are just being consistent. They had no real interest in lifting the embargo with Cuba. All they can see is Castro. They can't see sick children, children who are not getting the adequate medical care because of the lack of medicine and/or equipment to perform certain procedures, and the fact that they're now paying as much as three times what they should be paying for foodstuff because of the travel costs associated with it. Many of the people who grow those same foodstuffs here in America could get it there far cheaper, where they're bringing in rice and soybeans and other products now. Obviously, we are playing a form of diplomacy that is denying a quality of life for people.

The notion is we trade with China; we trade with other countries that are not democracies. We don't put those kind of restrictions on them. Just because Castro is who he is, who has raised the literacy rate in his country higher than it has ever been, who has lowered the infant mortality rate far lower than it has ever been, we are going to punish him simply because he is not bowing down to this government or any government. On the other hand, I see 2200 doctors in other countries who are Cuba-trained, who are doing good in Africa, the Caribbean and other Latin American countries that nobody else is doing. During my travels to Africa as late as last December to Gambia, I saw an entire hospital staff with Cuban doctors and nurses that otherwise would be closed. When Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first African President of South African, on the stage with him was Fidel Castro and Momar Qadaffi. He said those two gentleman had as much to do with him becoming President as anything in the world. Do you understand what I'm saying? Cuba helped provide technicians, medical personnel, military officers and other things. Qadaffi, from my understanding, provided a lot of the resources financially for those things to occur. I guess now we're going to tell him that we have to pick his friends to, but he didn't allow that to happen.

CM: If you look at Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Iran do you have the same type of world view on sanctions as it pertains to these other countries, as you do regarding Cuba? Do you see the situation with Cuba as different?

Rep. Thompson: I see all of them as the same. What we have to deal with is time in this institution. In time I think we can resolve a lot of those things. The Cuba situation, the timing couldn't have been better. The irony of the situation is that if the people in South Florida had let Elian go back home, the embargo would still be what it is. In their pursuit of trying to get back at Castro, they now have created the public opportunity for people to look at Cuba in a light that many of them didn't believe existed. Before Elian, there was not enough public sentiment in this institution to lift the embargo. But the more it played out, the more people started looking at Cuba, and the more people started rethinking their position. The irony is the people who hate Castro and the Cuban government the most can now take credit for getting the embargo lifted.

CM: In this era of budget surpluses, many people seem to be lost. Do you think everybody is a little discombobulated, so to speak, by what to do with all of this new found money? Do you think that the priorities are in line to actually do what is best with this new money that is available?

Rep. Thompson: No. You know, we fight daily to make sure that with this surplus we don't give more money back to the welfare, through tax breaks and other schemes. I subscribe to the notion that every person who lives in this country ought to be provided some basic necessities in life. Unless we have provided those necessities of life, then we have a lot of work to do. The question is what are those necessities? Food and shelter, health care, then we move to education, then obviously employment. Well, we still have hungry people. We still have homeless people and those living in substandard or dilapidated housing. We have 44 million people in this country without any health care. Do you understand? We have a lot of work to do. Then we can look at education. Obviously, we don't put the same standards and requirements on education as other countries who are moving past us. For instance, most kids in other countries go to school 6 days a week, 12 months out of the year. Or, at least there is some opportunities to do a lot of things we don't give our children. We see Japan and some other countries pulling away. That education piece we have to deal with. Even at that, we have to make sure it is affordable. By that I mean if there are people who can't, because of their financial status, provide that kind of education necessary for their children, then government ought to step in and say we'll do it. In Cuba, that's what they do. Do you understand what I'm saying?

The government assumes responsibility for the education and says 'As long as you want to go and you meet the requirements, bam, you're there.' Obviously there is the employment thing. Employment is both in terms of not getting the door shut in your face once you're there, and making sure that as long as you're there and perform, there are laws on the books to protect you. That's what I'm looking for. I'm looking to see what is being offered in this time of surplus. It is more tax breaks to the wealthy and more incentives to make the rich richer. We fight every day on the floor for the dispossessed, rather than the ceiling. That's the constant struggle. A lot of it is tagged to philosophy. It is the philosophy of the Republicans that I found is that everything is fine, and if anybody wants to achieve anything in life all they've got to do is apply themselves. But, you know, that's crazy. That is looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. I challenge them to come to a district like mine where the biggest public works project in that county right now is getting running water to about 400 families. This is 2000. This is not 1930. If we have that many or more families in this particular area in my district who still won't have running water when we complete this. But when I try to tell my colleagues about this, they can't believe it. They say "What?" If you don't have something as basic as running water, you can't start to talk about public transportation or health care.

CM: This is 2000 and this is the United States of America but is the problem of no running water because of the last eight years (the Republican Congress), or is there something deeper, more endemic? How does something like that happen in 2000?

Rep. Thompson: It happens because we have a country that differentiates between the haves and the have nots. It is a class struggle and it's a racial structure because the majority of those families without running water are Black. But an even greater majority of them are poor. The notion is that, even in America, with all this wealth, plenty and surplus, there is still a number of people who are living below an acceptable standard in terms of quality of life. That is why the debate goes on all the time about how do we get these sort of things for the people we represent. And it is not a giveaway. We look at many people in this country who are successful; a lot of them have attained that with the help of the government: Ross Perot, government contracts; a lot of the farmers who are successful get subsidy payments from this government; Mars Candy Company; McDonald's, we pay for the international marketing of their products. What in the hell do we look like advertising for international corporations who are already making a ton of money? Whereas, normally, you would have to go in your pocket and pay for your advertising, the government tells you no -- you keep your money in your pocket. What do you think we're over here for? But when we ask for an increase in a benefit for a mother on welfare, you think we're fixing to break the bank. We're talking about the floor; not the ceiling. That's the policy dilemma that we have here that I think will be with us always.

End of Part 1

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

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