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Reframing the issues

U.S. Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte, new head of the Congressional Black Caucus, has a message for Democrats: Dont cede the field.

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Congressman Mel Watt has never been one to hold back. Throughout his political career, first as manager for Harvey Gantt's U.S. Senate campaign against Jesse Helms, then as a member of the North Carolina Senate, and now as a representative for the 12th Congressional District in Charlotte, Watt has remained unabashedly liberal.

The UNC-Chapel Hill and Yale University-trained lawyer has been a champion of abortion rights and a foe of the death penalty. He voted against the war in Iraq and the USA PATRIOT Act, and for affirmative action and public housing.

Last month, Watt was chosen by unanimous vote to head the Congressional Black Caucus--a group that's been among the most vocal critics of the Bush administration. (While the caucus' mission is nonpartisan, its membership is lopsided by necessity--there are no black Republicans in Congress.) In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal last spring, the caucus called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. More recently, members have challenged vote tallies in Ohio because of reported problems disproportionately affecting black and poor precincts.

Watt spoke to that issue before the U.S. House voted Jan. 6 to certify the presidential election results. He said the country has fallen "woefully short" as a model democracy because some citizens have been denied access to the ballot during the last two election cycles. To fellow House members who called such criticisms "frivolous" and insisted they were being lodged by Democrats bitter over the election results, Watt said: "This is not about whether George Bush won the election. I'm planning to vote to certify. But there is nothing more basic than the right to vote. ... We are saying that people who did not have equal access to vote are frivolous?! Come on. Give me a break."

Watt was no less forthright when staff writer Barbara Solow caught up with him by phone in his Charlotte office recently. Here's what the Congressman had to say about the caucus, cultural issues and the need for Democrats to reclaim the political offensive.

Independent: A lot of people are still analyzing the presidential election and our red state/blue state divide. What lessons do you see for the Democrats?

Mel Watt: I think we need to commit to not dividing the country into red or blue states, but to be aggressively putting out a message and trying to appeal to people in every state, in every race and every religion and culture. I just think we concede defeat in a certain segment of our population when we divide the country like that. I don't think it's good for either Republicans or Democrats.

Where is the push for viewing the electorate that way coming from?

The Republicans and pundits and to some extent history has resulted in this. There is a history of states dividing along red or blue lines. More recently, few presidential candidates have been able to break through and reverse that history. But we need to keep looking at all of the states and trying to go after them. We underestimate the extent to which Republicans have not only framed the division into red and blue to try to separate us, as they have along many other different lines--we've allowed them to frame that issue and every other issue we are debating these days. If we are actively going to reach out to all of these states, we need to take the initiative and frame these issues in different terms.

Where do black voters fall along the red state/blue state divide?

The unfortunate consequence of dividing red and blue states is that in many of the states that have typically gone to the Republican Party, while white Americans are in the majority, there are substantial minorities of African Americans in all of those states. Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina--all of those states have significant minority populations. When you concede a state, you are doing two things. First, you're conceding that African Americans are not going to have any input into the presidential selection, at least at the Electoral College level. Second, you are not getting those African Americans mobilized in ways that can affect other things down the ticket--statewide races, judicial elections. In North Carolina, we are in a red state in how we've been defined on a federal level. But if you look at what happened at the state level, we have a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor--up until recently, the whole council of state was Democratic. By conceding the race at the presidential level, we have made it easier for Republicans to win further down the ticket. So what do Democrats need to do to win? We need to frame the issues in ways that relate to people's lives--talk about things in ways that people can understand. We need not be fearful of talking about the religious and moral consequences of what government does. We need not cast ourselves as somehow immoral, as the Republicans have tried to cast us. We need not cast ourselves as lacking the religious base, as the Republicans would like to cast us. Among the staunchest religious people are Democratic people. Among the staunchest religious people of the Christian faith are African Americans. So this notion that somehow you've got to be a Republican to be Christian or religious or moral--we've got to walk directly into that and talk about that issue so people understand Republicans don't have a monopoly on Christianity or any of the social and cultural values that are important to this country.

What about issues like abortion and gay marriage that some pundits say made the difference in the presidential race. Do you agree that they did?

It did make a substantial difference for us. First of all, we allowed Republicans to say we were advocates of gay marriage rather than framing it as a personal liberty issue or standing up and saying we don't believe in it. We ran away from that; nobody wanted to talk about it, we knew it made people uncomfortable. Instead of having our community engaged in open discussion about it and moving on to other issues or seeing how it related to pocketbook issues, we let the Republicans control the message.... In my own experience, I've seen that if you tell people where you stand on an issue, whether they agree or not, they will respect you. In our research on why Jesse Helms kept winning elections, we couldn't find an issue on which the majority agreed with him. But people knew where he stood.

Are issues like gay marriage a wedge between black voters and the Democratic Party?

I think they chipped off more black voters than we would have liked for them to chip off. You don't have to chip off a lot of black voters, Republicans have found over the years. Just as the Democrats have found if they chip off some of that center, you don't have to move a lot of voters but you have to move some. We haven't been able to move those voters at the center toward the Democrats. Republicans have been successful in moving some African Americans and progressives on issues of security, religion, abortion, gay marriage. Those issues move enough people or get them wavering enough that they say, 'Well, the election is too difficult. I think I'll just stay home.'

Does defining gay marriage as a civil rights issue pose a problem for black voters? Is that a turnoff?

I never really talk about it in civil rights terms. I talk about it in civil liberties terms, respecting the individual. It's really a personal freedom issue more than a civil rights issue. It's the ability of a person to be who he or she is.... I have cautioned gay groups not to talk about it that way to black people. Black people tend to think of that as the right to vote and have jobs and things they have fought for over the years. I don't want to get into an argument about whether this is a civil right, human right or individual right. It's, Do you believe an individual has a right to be respected?

We've heard reports of local Republican candidates targeting black churches and black preachers on moral issues as a strategy for defeating Democratic candidates. Have you seen examples of that?

I have heard people saying that has occurred. What can I say in response? That's the same strategy I'm advocating for Democrats. You can't avoid these issues. For us to bury our heads in the sand and say these issues aren't to be discussed, that's just unrealistic. We need to be talking about them in our own terms and not allowing [Republicans] to define themselves as the moral arbiters of what's right and wrong. You need to make people think, 'OK, do you know any gay people? Do you like them any less? Do you think God likes them any less?'

How should we weigh the power of these cultural issues? What is a cultural issue anyway?

Well, that's a framing in and of itself. To the extent that we have been able to frame pocketbook issues as the most important ones, we have tended to be successful. To the extent that we have allowed them to frame the issues as cultural, religious, moral--even though I don't necessarily think they are--we have lost. That's what politics is all about: winning and losing. We have got to get back on the offensive; that's the point I want to drive home more than anything else. We need to be, as elected officials, Democrats and party officials, framing these issues in ways people can relate to, understand and sort through their own emotions about.

How appealing is the Republican idea of the "ownership society" to black voters?

I don't think black folks have even focused on that. Again, it's one of those issues that Republicans are going to try to define in their terms by calling it an ownership issue as opposed to a security issue. Social Security has always been framed as a security issue--how can you guarantee people they are going to be secure when they reach retirement age? We will sit here and allow them to come up with a whole new terminology.... It's just like how we talk about partial birth abortion. What the hell is that? Nobody knows what that is. It's a term they created to make it sound terrible. If we were aggressive--people understand our terminology a lot more than this new terminology. Who ever heard of Republicans talking about "Clean Skies"? Give me a break! This is about dirtying the skies. That's what they are doing. The same kind of thing will happen with Social Security. I don't want to talk about an ownership issue. I want to talk about whether my mother and grandmother and me are going to be secure when we reach retirement.

What about the war in Iraq? How did that issue play with black voters?

I think black people want to be secure and to the extent that we allow this administration to define [the war] in terms of personal security, we play into their hands. What we should have said is that this war in Iraq was never about personal security, never about connections with the events of 9/11. All of this has been documented, yet we allowed the Republicans in this administration to define this as a personal security issue. And African Americans want security as much as white Americans.

What about the larger issue of voter disenfranchisement that's been with us since 2000? How big a factor was that in this election?

I think some people believe it was as big a factor in this election as in 2000 in terms of the gross number of votes. But it played out in a more subtle way. If you've got 1,000 white voters in front of 10 machines and 1,000 black voters in front of two machines, you've increased the time people are going to have to stand there and wait to vote. That was happening all over Ohio, some in Florida. So it wasn't, 'OK, we're not going to count it this time.' It's a more subtle form of discrimination against African-American voters and poor voters.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have taken the lead on that issue. What other concerns will the caucus be focusing on in the coming months?

The day after I get sworn in as chair, we are going to have a retreat. I have been very cautious about talking about substantive issues in advance of that. One of the reasons I was elected chair by such an overwhelming vote is that people trust that I will not be working on my agenda. This is about a collective agenda. So I'm going to allow that retreat process to play itself out. My expectation is to reduce those priority agenda items to writing, then circulate them to the president with a letter that we want to meet regularly about this agenda and whether he can support all or parts of it.

President Bush refused to meet with the NAACP during the campaign. But he did recently meet with outgoing NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume. Do you think that represents some basis for progress?

It's hard to know what message to read. I would like to read it as a hopeful sign and will read it that way until someone tells me otherwise. But it could also be read as, 'I'm willing to meet with anybody once they tell me they are leaving and are not going to bother me.'

Do you see any worthy candidates on the horizon for a Democratic presidential run in 2008?

It's way too early to get into that. There are a lot of excellent people in the Democratic Party. I'm sure over the next four years a number of them will emerge.

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