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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Kweisi Mfume : The Driving Force Behind the Black Caucus' Increasing Clout

August 21, 1994|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times based in Washington. She interviewed Kweisi Mfume in his office

WASHINGTON — In his political life-and-death battle to resurrect his crime bill, President Bill Clinton sought eight elusive votes from foes and friends alike. A major target were 10 Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped to defeat a key procedural vote that stalled $30-billion worth of new cops, new prisons and new prevention programs.

At week's end, the White House had persuaded three of them, and possibly more, to switch on a new vote in spite of their moral opposition to a bill that significantly expands the death penalty. Regardless of the outcome, the 40-member black caucus has certainly flexed its muscle in Washington.

This increasingly influential political bloc, chaired by Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), played a pivotal role in the law-and-order debate. Black Democrats contended that tougher sentences and more prisons have not reduced crime. They insisted on adding drug-treatment and recreational programs, like midnight basketball, and other prevention efforts derided as pork by Republicans hell-bent to hand Clinton an embarrassing political defeat.

To counter the bill's expansion of the death penalty to 60 new crimes, including carjacking, the caucus, which includes Julian Dixon, Maxine Waters and Walter Tucker, from Southern California, supported the Racial Justice Act. This provision would have allowed Death Row defendants to challenge their sentences based on statistics that indicate racial bias in the imposition of capital punishment. No Racial Justice Act, Mfume had threatened the White House, no black votes on the rule that would allow the crime bill to proceed.

The give-and-not-much-take took weeks. The delay gave opponents more time to chip away at the fragile support for the crime bill. The GOP leadership targeted Republicans who had voted for the more liberal bill in the House. The National Rifle Assn. targeted anyone who was vulnerable on the assault-weapons ban. The hardball paid off when the "no" votes also included unlikely allies: 10 liberal black Democrats.

In Washington, it ain't over until it's over. Mfume, 45, believes in second chances. He dropped out of high school when he was 16. He became a teen-age father; his five sons range in age from 21 through 26. Mfume now represents the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up.

That he has taken his fight from the Baltimore streets to the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus will not soon be forgotten.

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Question: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted with the Republican leadership against the rule governing debate on the crime bill. Wasn't that an unholy alliance?

Answer: It's down to seven. . . . It might be down to six. I've talked with members; the President has talked with members, and people in their districts have talked with them. I'm starting to see some movement among the group of 10 who really were functioning on principle regarding the death penalty. It's a position I can appreciate. But some have come to realize that the fate of the entire bill is now tied to their vote . . .

Whether are not it's an unholy alliance is debatable, because it was not an alliance with Republicans but also an alliance with 58 Democrats. There were a number of members of our party, who either reacting to the ban on assault weapons or the prevention programs, decided not to vote for it. It was kind of a triumvirate. In that regard, I don't want to call it unholy, but it was certainly unproductive.

Q: Does party loyalty count for anything?

A: (The Congressional Black Caucus has) proven to be the most loyal aspect of the Democratic Party. . . . It ought to be a reciprocal loyalty. The party has to be loyal also to those who have proven to be the most loyal to the party.

Q: You said you were voting against the rule.

A: That was a negotiating ploy at the time, because we were going through the conference committee. The threat, we hoped, would gain us a concession on the racial-justice provision.

We put up a good fight. . . . I sat there with a poker face for six weeks trying to get this done, but once the game was over in that regard--the conference committee had reported its bill out--there was nothing else to do. You could vote against the bill for the sake of voting against the bill, but you certainly weren't going to get the Racial Justice Act. What we were going to get was an executive order by the President and a commission.

Q: What else did you get?

A: We went through the same process on assault weapons in April, threatening then to vote against the rule if we didn't get the assault-weapons ban. People accused us of being obstructionists and said it would be detrimental to the party and we would never get the assault-weapons ban--but we got it. . . .

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