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

Today we continue our conversation with Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS). In this part two of the interview, Rep. Thompson and I discussed budget politics, the plight of the Black Farmers, reparations and the death penalty.

CM: You are now on the Budget Committee. And on matters pertaining to fiscal policy it would appear that Black Democrats would have a very serious argument with the Clinton Administration - beginning with the way be the way the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) budget seems to be so disrespectfully handled by the Democratic Congress and Administration.

Rep. Thompson: You are correct. In that sense you have to say, well, we're able to get 75 percent of what we want. That's the unfortunate institution we work in. Our budget we all knew was dead on arrival, but we set some standards this time that had not been applicable in the past. Our budget balanced, so we were no longer viewed as these wild-eyed caucus members who are not realistic. We presented some ideas that ultimately some other members took and became law. We talked about a homeowner down payment assistance program where we would take Section 8 money to help people become homeowners rather than lifetime renters for which the government pays. Well, next time we look, that's over in the HUD budget as an idea that a Republican from New York came with. You understand?

We could argue over why he took it, but they took it and it became law. Now we can look forward to some help for people to become homeowners. This is a big institution. I think the more we're here and the more diverse we are, the stronger we will become. I'm number four on the Budget Committee now. If I stay on, I'll probably go to three or two. But it is tough. If Democrats take over next year -- and I say Democrat because that is the party all of us except one of us belong to -- we will have 3 chairmen that are African Americans, at least 19 will be subcommittee chairmen, and a number of which that will also serve on exclusive committee in the Budget or Appropriations. So you have a significant opportunity to flex your influence in that capacity. As a Republican goes, they don't have one chairman that's black; they don't have one subcommittee chairman that's black. All they've got is J.C. Watts. He's the poster child for the Republicans. While we support the Democratic Party, we have reserved the right to go against it when we felt there were some fundamental differences. The President's efforts with welfare reform, we opposed it. Still oppose it. That five-year clock is ticking on families that can stay on aid. There's no way you are going to just push people out and say we can't help because your five years is up. So there will be some debate about that in this prosperity. Also, you can't train people for jobs that aren't going anyway. It looks like you got them on punishment. How are you going to train me for a minimum wage job that doesn't offer any benefits, doesn't offer any opportunity for promotion, and I'm supposed to be happy? It is just not the case.

CM: Have you thought that the time has come to even out the approach that the Black political establishment takes toward fiscal policy, and not place so much emphasis on spending programs, but possibly move in the direction of tax-cutting, in a way that is designed to benefit some of the Black entrepreneurs and those who are accumulating capital?

Rep. Thompson: Yes, but the percentages are so skewed. If I had to say what percentage of Black people in this country have a problem with death taxes, you're probably talking about less than one-tenth of one percent. The issue, making sure that people can get an education and take care of their families, or the issue that they have accumulated so much wealth they now need to know how to pass it on to the next generation, I don't want to cross that issue. Most of the folk who I deal with deal with survival of the present. They would love to have that problem of how I am going to pass this [inherited wealth] on, but it is just not there. While I look forward to the day where that is the case --

CM: First things first?

Rep. Thompson: Absolutely.

CM: Please tell me about this open primary situation in Mississippi.

Rep. Thompson: Are you aware of the Supreme Court case in California?

CM: Yes. We have your official position statement, but can you elaborate on that?

Rep. Thompson: If you are a student of history, you know that the system [creates methods of] disenfranchisement: the poll tax, being required to interpret the constitution before you are allowed to register to vote, or requiring you to be a landowner before you can run for public office. You know, all kind of tricks.

Well, the open primary is just a logical expansion in this new millennium of what had happened during Reconstruction. What we have in a lot of states is the notion that, "Well, why should we have primaries and then a general election? Why can't we just put everybody on the ballot?" Well, that sounds good, but why are you just coming up with the idea? The notion is that Black people have gotten politically active; they've learned the system. Now they're putting Black people in position of importance through the political process. So the system being what it is said, hey, we've taken notice of this, don't like it, so in the name of good government, in the name of fiscal responsibility, why do we need two election when we can just have one? My position is you do it now simply because Black people are winning. Moreover, fringe candidates have a greater chance of winning. I'm talking about extremist candidates, but also candidates that have a lot of money. If I've got big money, a certain percentage of the vote can either be bought or fooled for the money. Therefore, we invent an open primary, and we promote it as "good government." Because I would like to see everybody on the ballot and then I'll make my choice. It might be a Democrat, it might be a Republican, it might be an Independent. No. If you run in that two-party system, you get to be the nominee, but you can also decide to run as an Independent in the general. Do you understand? For us, in areas where there are a high concentration of minorities --

CM: In one party...

Rep. Thompson: Absolutely. So the notion is that the open primary, which had always been struck down by the Justice Department under the Section 5 review of the Voting Rights Act ,thank goodness, but we had a Democratic Secretary of State this past year who was trying to push it, and it just didn't make it. We fought him on that. He said, "Well, California has an open primary and people aren't fussing about that." He hadn't researched it to find out that it was already before the Supreme Court. It was challenged and the Supreme Court came back and said you're right; throw it out." So we feel vindicated by that simply because now, unless they've come up with something else, it is dead. But I promise you, before the year is out, they will come up with some type of scheme to disenfranchise minority voters.

CM: Back to the Black Farmers and Representative Jay Dickey (R- Ak). It appears that Black farmers in his state do indeed support him, yet the CBC has a problem with what Rep. Dickey has attempted to do "on behalf" of Black Farmers. Please explain what the problem was and what he tried to do? Secondly, how do you feel about Black farmers that are supporting him?

Rep. Thompson: First of all, this is America and it is a democracy. I think people can support anybody they want to. But when you [Black Farmers] try to draw that the reason for your support is that Black Caucus members and other Democrats had not helped, then you force people who have been your allies to at least set the record straight. Some of those individuals [Black Farmers] had called Caucus members' names [negatively, in public], and they had never met them. The notion is that, sure, if Jay Dickey is your 'massa' and that's who you want to support, then you go ahead and do it. But let your rationale be grounded on the notion that you believe he is the best person.

Now, I would hate to find out that for a few pieces of silver or something like that, that people are endorsing this man, because there is not one piece of legislation filed by Jay Dickey on behalf of small or limited resource farmers in this House of Representatives. Everybody in this country knows that the cause of Black farmers was a clarion call made by the Congressional Black Caucus. Other individuals who live in Jay Dickey's district do not live in the Democratic district, so why would they be critical of the Democrats when they live in the Republican district. If you are going to support the man, go ahead. Say, "This is my Congressman, I've always supported him; I'm going to support him again." But to try to craft the fact that he's doing more for Black farmers than the Democrats and the Black Caucus, I reject that. Specifically because we don't know where he's from. We polled all the members of the Agriculture Committee who are Black. We polled other people from Arkansas, they don't know him. They've never contacted my office. Do you know what I'm saying? You really have to respond to it, so we did by saying, look, since 1990 the Black Caucus has done all these things on behalf of the Black farmers including the legislation that we introduced three weeks ago that will provide penalties for employees who discriminate and we set a time certain for the department to answer complaints of discrimination, as well as some structural changes in the county committee system that will put more minorities and other folk on them. Jay Dickey ain't gonna do that, because he's one of the good ol' boys. But some of our folk are so busy looking for a 'Great White Hope' that they will support the devil. In this instance, to say that Jay Dickey does more for Black farmers than members of the Black Caucus is the best example of somebody looking for a Great White Hope.

CM: Rep. Watts, what did he do? Was he ever with the Caucus on the issue of the Black farmers, or was this his segue way in, doing this thing with Rep. Dickey?

Rep. Thompson: J.C. Watts voluntarily chose not to become a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. J.C. Watts' daddy said this statement: that a black person voting for a Republican is like the chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. That's what J.C. Watts' daddy said about his son, a Republican. Okay?

The notion is that J.C. Watts introduced one piece of legislation that said, in essence, that any of the money received in the Black farmers settlement should not be taxable. I don't mind. He is head of the Republican Congress. I think he got 20 people as co-sponsors of the bill. It never had a hearing. He could bypass all that, bring it to the floor. But that's all he's done. But guess what? We negotiated that with the courts in the lawsuit to say all those folks would receive a minimum of $50,000, plus they would receive another check for $12,000 to pay taxes. So the notion is here is a joker who is going to file a bill, but he's not even cognizant of the work we're doing because he's not involved in it. I do not have a high regard for J.C. Watts. I see him and Clarence Thomas in the same vein. There is a difference between Black people. One of the arguments I heard in support of Clarence Thomas: "Well, he can't be that bad because, after all, he's Black. I challenge anybody to look at his court decisions. Any questions of race, gender or equity, he always writes with Scalia, who absolutely is the most extreme member of the court in terms of being conservative. Just because a person is Black is no reason to expect that person to support what's right for Black people.

CM: Reparations. I believe Rep. Lewis earlier in the year made a connection between this era of budget surpluses and the need to revisit or at least take a look at the issue of reparations. Where are you on reparations? Are you evolving on the issue?

Rep. Thompson: I have been a supporter of Conyers' bill ever since I've been here. I am convinced this country owes Black people a debt, especially in light of how we got here. For the most part, without our consent, how we were treated when we got here as slaves. Just as we have made certain payments to other ethnic groups who have been mistreated, Black people should be treated no different. Whether or not I think this Congress will even do that, not in a million years. We make excuses and allowance for a lot of atrocities, but there still is this underlying resentment to really do for Black people what you should. I will put it like this: if you put the Holocaust on the board and Slavery on the board, and get the rest of society to say which one was worst, obviously in the minds of the majority of the people it would be the Holocaust. But obviously the parallels of what occurred are so similar. To your eye you would probably say they are both the same; no different. You held people against their will, you killed them, if you try to define under both of those situations. People are still being pursued for the crimes associated with the Holocaust. We never pursued anybody in this country for crimes associated with slavery.

CM: Not only that, there are government officials - Deputy Treasury Secretary, Mr. Eizenstat, for example, who has been in the forefront on the issue of obtaining financial reparations from the German government or banks on behalf of Jews. I haven't seen anybody in the Clinton administration making a similar case for Blacks or actively working on behalf of Blacks.

Rep. Thompson: Yes. But I agree that the debate ought to continue. The more you can keep the debate in the eyes of the public, obviously the more interest -- and visible -- the issue becomes. The average notion of reparations in the minds of a lot of people in this country is, well, there they go wanting something for nothing again. You understand? We have to define what it is (that we want). That's going to take time.

CM: One of the things I saw in your effort to pass the Confederate Flag resolution was this: whenever you bring the issue of slavery into the political domain, you then are forced to deal with the question of what needs to be done about it. I thought your bill, even more than the economic and cultural protests against the flag, brought that to the forefront and would have actually forced the official representation of this country, the government, to deal with some of the things that have been done to our people. Do you detect, as you work among some of your colleagues, that in private it is fine for them to say slavery was bad and has hurt Blacks, but once it becomes part of this building as official business, the White members of Congress feel like " oops, we're one step closer to actually having to pay out or do something legally about what was done to Blacks"?

Rep. Thompson: They will say, "Well, you know, to do this for Blacks we would have to do this for other folks too." But you've already done it. That will be one of the classic responses. I say, "Look, Indians ought to be paid. I don't know who you're talking about. I don't have any problems." But it has to continue as part of the debate.

CM: What do you think of what Rep. Tony Hall (D-OH) said (that Congress should explore the possibility of the US formally apologizing to Blacks for slavery)?

Rep. Thompson: My initial reaction was that's fine. Then I said, "What can I do with an apology?" Is it something that is really genuine, or is it an opportunity to lift some guilt and burden off of folks? A lot of my White colleagues back home try to tell me, "You know, I don't really see color. A lot of my kids are Black." But then I see that they send their kid to an all-White segregated school. When I say, "Why do you send your kid to this school that doesn't admit Blacks?" [They say], "No, no, no. They've got a good program." I said, "That school is not accredited.

Everything that you want in a school is over here in a public school." [They say], "No, no. It's a safety factor." They have drugs in the private school just like they have drugs in the public schools. If that's it, but it is race. You understand what I'm saying? The dilemma is how are we able to deal with it. The race question in America is going to be with us a long time. It is one of those situations where we are just going to have to work as hard and diligent as we possibly can.

CM: Do you see a critical mass forming on reparations, because you've got Representative Conyers and yourself in the political establishment; you've got Randall Robinson in the private and cultural sector; Minister Farrakhan, private and cultural sector. You've got grassroots organizations like NCOBRA. I notice everybody saying similar things, but I know a lot of these people and organizations don't like each other or don't work with each other, or feel like it would cost them in their sphere of influence. Do you think something more organized needs to be done regarding reparations? Maybe a conference or some type of deliberate attempt to unify and organize the different sectors that seem to be saying the same thing, but can't seem to work together?

Rep. Thompson: Let me say that there is a place for that connectivity, but I would also want to respect the individual organizations, so long as people understand who we are. The best way I can put it is all my life I've had to get the system not to look as Black people as one. You get marginalized when you get looked at as one. Let me explain that. The best example I can give you is I was pressing the county hospital to hire more minority vendors. The administrator really got perturbed with me because I wasn't letting him go. He said, "I tried one four years ago and it didn't work out." Or they say that, in another situation (hypothetical), "I talked to Lanier and he said he doesn't have a problem with it," but Lanier is your man. He's not going to tell you the truth. So the system that we have to deal with would love to put us in a box. What we have to let them know is, number one, we are different people, but yet and still we are one. When you want to deal with us as a people, then you have to deal with us like the big picture, not the little picture. The little picture gives you a comfort level that you can deal with. Rather than say, "I met Kweisi Mfume." At some point somebody says that's just one piece of the puzzle; we need to have a lot of people around the table so collectively we can come up with this. To say whether or not those organizations should come together and agree on some basic principles that we can share with the world, sure. So if it is economic development, if it is health care, if it is education, whatever, those are some basic principles that we all can subscribe to. That's fine, and I think that should be. I also need to respect the individuality.

CM: I see a similar confluence of forces on the death penalty. Again, several groups and individuals that, on paper, are in agreement on an issue but yet, can't seem to work together. So, look at what happened to Shakah Sankofa (Gary Graham). Again, everybody seemed to be in agreement amongst the establishment and the grassroots Black groups, but there was not an effective strategy to stop him from dying. In general, what is your position on the death penalty?

Rep. Thompson: In this country, for the most part, poor people get the death penalty. To break it down even more, Black people get it more often. Black poor people get it more often than White poor people, but poor people in general get it more than people. Okay? Again, you go back to class. If I had the means, I could hire the best lawyers. I could hire a PR firm. Do you understand?

CM: Look at O.J.

Rep. Thompson: Or the folks that had all the suspicion with the couple who may have had something to do with the death of their daughter out there in Colorado. They hired the best lawyers and a PR firm to do the spin in the press. How many poor folk can do that? We got court-appointed attorneys and that's it, who are going to get paid the same money whether they go to trial or plead them guilty. So the notion is I didn't get the best defense, but I got a trial. In this country, we are going to settle for minimum standards or we're going to provide this to everybody. That is our problem. I will be honest with you: I've been back and forth on the death penalty. I came here opposed to it. I saw some things associated with heinous crimes, and I'm back on the other side again. I don't like it, but I think I'm here to stay this time simply because I would rather see that person locked up for the rest of their life rather than kill them. That's not the way to live, but I can deal with it in that respect. Or at least give that person a choice [life in prison or the death penalty].

I toured my first prison in 1973. Let me tell you, I got letters for four years after that. To see 17 year-old fellows with 30 or 40 years, it breaks your heart. I visited jail with my chief of police who was a 25-year decorated Vietnam veteran. This guy cried all the way back home. He said, "Man, I didn't have a clue that there were that many Black folk in jail." People give you a note saying, "Write me a letter. I need a lawyer." It blows you away. But to see the mindset in this country that they would rather spend $35,000 to $40,000 a year to keep somebody warehoused, and on the other hand we're trying to argue for more money for education so that maybe we can steer them away from that potential life of crime. They will gladly build another prison in a heartbeat, but I can't get a roof on his high school in his county because they say it costs too much. Do you understand? But I can get a new jail, but I can't a roof. That is the mindset that you have to deal with. People say, well, if you're not for the death penalty, you're soft on crime. Say what? But then when I look statistically at who is there, why they're there, the crimes committed -- . For instance, there is a White boy in my district who killed a woman, burned her up. You cannot imagine all the [white] people trying to get him out. Normally, these folk would be, hey, lock him up, throw away the key, burn it.

CM: But they're activists now, on his [white suspect] behalf.

Rep. Thompson: Oh, you understand? You see what I'm saying? But if I frame that in a policy that we need to now do this for everybody -- then everyone has a problem with it. That's what I put up with and I want to do something, but I can't do it in a vacuum, because I want to be consistent. That is the dilemma. Everybody is tough on crime until it shows up at their door. In other words, if my son or daughter is charged with something, then I'm looking for all the leniency and all the breaks in the world. Before that, hey man, get him, torture him!

What I try to do with people when I hold town meetings is talk about all our childhoods and experiences, and how we're just fortunate to be where we are because we could be behind bars. I'm not proud of everything I did growing up. I've been lucky as hell that I didn't get caught. I am not going to go out here and try to be a knight in shining armor. Of course I didn't get caught. I'm going to understand reality and try to provide some direction and hope for some young folk like that fellow over there and some of the students here. Because sometimes as old folk we try to convince young folk that we haven't done anything wrong in our lifetime, that I've been straight as an arrow, pure as the driven snow. You and I know that's not the case. Part of being a member of Congress is trying to legislate and lead in a manner that is consistent with your life experiences and how you want things to be. That is why you support common sense stuff, and the things that don't make sense, you say so. Oftentimes people mistake you as a radical just because you've got an opinion that is different from theirs. But I'd rather have a public official who has an opinion than somebody who just goes along with the get-along. They're not going to get anything from me. Every time you see them, "Hey man, anything I can do, you just call me." [But they never really help you]

CM: Thank You for your thoughts and time.

Rep. Thompson: You are welcome. Be good Brother.

Thursday, July 13, 2000