Politics Mondays: Minorities Within House Minority - Getting Creative by Dennis Conrad
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has dreamed for years of getting the federal government to help build a big, new airport near his district, creating an economic boom for Chicago's South Side and south suburbs.
But even with a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Jackson has failed to get congressional approval. So Jackson went to the private sector and rounded up $200 million in pledges of support from developers, a move that at least has gotten the airport into the planning stages.
"I had to come up with something more creative, the first public-private partnership to build an airport in the history of the U.S.," said Jackson, a Democrat and the son of the civil rights leader.
It's hard for any Democrats to get things done in the Republican-controlled Congress. Minorities within that minority say they face even bigger obstacles, forcing them to look for new approaches.
"You are a double-Democrat," said Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Miss. "You're black and a Democrat, so struggle is not unusual in your capacity."
Black lawmakers need to be especially creative. For example, Thompson works with the Congressional Black Caucus to speak out on issues. Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois sponsors a multitude of workshops for constituents, even for released prison inmates. Fellow Illinoisan Luis Gutierrez targets immigration matters.
Working with the Republican majority can produce some results, officials said, but it's often hard to find common ground on issues like universal health care, affirmative action and increased school funding.
"In moments like this, I wish we had more black Republicans who were in a position where they sort of would be able to further the agenda of the African-Americans in the Republican Party," said Rep. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther leader who is now an Illinois congressman.
Even their Democratic colleagues sometimes take them for granted, they say.
Jackson said he could do better for his constituents if he were treated better by what he calls the "Congressional White Caucus," which he says makes decisions that give priority projects to the 10 or 15 most politically vulnerable House Democrats in the party's effort to regain control of the chamber.
"I could be a minority and be in the minority and be more effective," if the Democratic caucus weren't so focused on that handful of lawmakers, he said.
Sixty-eight House members, including delegates from the District of Columbia and various U.S. territories, are black or Hispanic. All but six are Democrats. In addition, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama is the Senate's only black member.
Nearly all the Democrats are from safe districts where they will trounce any Republican challengers -- a situation that sometimes works against them.
Big victories make it harder for minority lawmakers to argue they are politically vulnerable and need a share of the federal projects from the pool available for Democrats to divvy up, said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland government professor and former campaign aide to presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.
"If you get re-elected with 80 percent and sometimes no opposition, it's going to make it difficult to say you need a lot of help," Walters said.
David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a black think tank, said minority Democrats simply aren't in a position to pass legislation. "It's just not much in the cards," he said.
Instead, minorities within the Democratic Party look for other ways to make a positive impression on voters.
Gutierrez has put a heavy emphasis on immigration issues in his largely Hispanic district on Chicago's northwest side.
In the past dozen years, Gutierrez' congressional staff has held workshops that have drawn 40,000 immigrants interested in becoming American citizens. The congressman said more than 90 percent of participants have succeeded.
"We were the first office recognized by the Immigration Service to do citizenship workshops," he said. "They said, `OK, here's the rules and regulations, here's how you qualify,' so we trained our people and qualified."
If they can't pass legislation, minority lawmakers can band together to draw attention to key issues, such as the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and funding to fight AIDS in Africa and around the world.
"You have to serve as a conscience of Congress," Thompson said.
Obama said his status as the Senate's only black member "gave me a particular platform to talk about the racial components" of the response to Hurricane Katrina. Otherwise, he said, he has been treated just like any other freshman senator.
If Democrats regain control of Congress, many minority lawmakers will suddenly gain clout and take over key committees. But Davis said even that would not guarantee success for ideas such as a major war against poverty or housing assistance for inmates being released from prison.
"It is going to take serious organizing, education and activating the people who themselves are impoverished," said Davis, the secretary of the black caucus. "You see, I have reached a point where I don't think anybody is going to save any population group in this country other than that population group themselves."
© 2005 The Associated Press.
Monday, November 28, 2005