Black, Hispanic Caucuses Refocus For New Congress

Tell Me More continues its special broadcast from the Capitol to mark the swearing-in of the 112th Congress. Host Michel Martin speaks with chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Charles Gonzalez, of Texas, and the incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Emanuel Cleaver, of Missouri. They discuss how their predominately Democratic caucuses plan to work effectively in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

New members like Allen West are not the only ones taking on new responsibilities on Capitol Hill today. There are also some familiar faces in new positions of leadership. Here to talk with us now are two gentlemen in new roles. Charles Gonzalez represents the 20th District of Texas, which includes parts of San Antonio. This session of Congress, he will also serve as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, known as the CHC.

Also with us, Emanuel Cleaver, who represents Missouri's 5th District, including parts of Kansas City. He will serve this Congress as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the CBC. And they both join us from the Capitol.

Gentlemen, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us and Happy New Year to you both.

Representative CHARLES GONZALEZ (Democrat, Texas): Thank you for having us.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): Good to be here with you.

MARTIN: Now, I have to ask, even though I'm sure you are both tired of this question - the number of African-Americans serving in Congress at an historic high. An African-American president, Latino-Americans, Hispanic-Americans have broken new political ground across the country. For example, there's a Latina governor of New Mexico.

So there are those who will say, including members of the incoming Congress like Tim Scott, who say that your caucuses are unnecessary and perhaps even divisive. So, what do you say to that? And Congressman Cleaver, if you would start.

Rep. CLEAVER: Look, I would be pleased to submit to the Congressional Black Caucus a recommendation at any time that we disband as soon as we receive concrete information that there is no racism or bigotry and that there is no exclusion in Congress that poor people are fully able to sit at the table to get a piece of the political pie. That's not the case. And until that is the case, we will need a Congressional Black Caucus.

And the weird thing about whether or not we are relevant and whether it is necessary to have such caucuses as ours is the fact that there are all kinds of caucuses. I mean there is a Croatian caucus. I'm not sure that anyone is condemning them. There is a women's caucus, a tea party caucus, and it goes on and on.

The only time we hear that question, and we hear it quite a lot, is when it is concerning the Hispanic caucus and the black caucus.

MARTIN: Congressman Gonzalez?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, the simple answer is we're not there yet. You know, there's a reason we're referred to as a minority. The other thing to take in consideration is the process in Congress. There is strength in numbers and unity and focus. And that's what both caucuses bring to the process in the House.

And it is essential to identify those issues that impact our communities more so than other communities. And we have to protect that interest. If people think that we have totally arrived, they just need to look at the numbers and, you know, they're not really reflected in different legislatures throughout this country and even in our United States Congress.

MARTIN: And Congressman Gonzalez, going on to matters of legislation now, lawmakers were very active before the break during the lame-duck session of repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Congress passed this tax cut bill that also extended unemployment benefits. One of the - president said his biggest disappointment was not being able to pass the DREAM Act, which would have cleared the way for a certain group of undocumented immigrants, young undocumented immigrants, it would've cleared a path to legalization for this group of people.

So, obviously, that was a disappointment to a lot of people. You met with the president recently to regroup after that setback. What did you two conclude about the possibility of immigration reform now, particularly given that many of the people who are now seated - will be seated in Congress today, have a very skeptical view of this kind of immigration reform?

Rep. GONZALEZ: The president has rededicated himself to the proposition that we will push forward with comprehensive immigration reform. We know the odds are a lot harder under the environment with the majority being with the Republicans in the House. But it doesn't mean that you give up. And I think we have tremendous allies with some Republicans in different communities, business leaders and such who recognize that the policies that are in place right now are not doing anybody any good.

MARTIN: Congressman Cleaver, I wanted to ask you a question that I asked Allen West earlier, which is that the new Gallup poll shows that members of the public hold the Congress in very low esteem. And some people say that that's because they feel that, you know, even though this isn't a very productive last lame-duck session, that many people say that they're just uncomfortable, that they just don't like the sense that the parties are really not engaged in, you know, productive discourse.

That it's all about sort of posturing and not about really moving the country forward. So, I'd like to ask you as chair of the caucus and as a member in your own right, what are you going to do to change that perception in this session?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, I'm going to continue to do many of the things I've done since I was elected here and things that I did when I was mayor of Kansas City. And that is, I will refuse, personally, to engage in the tribalism. I will not use my valuable time on the floor calling other members derogatory names. I will never stand up and call someone a liar. I will not engage in the kind of rhetoric that is tearing asunder not only the Congress, but the people around this nation who are victims of the echo leaving the Potomac.

I also started a civility caucus two years ago with Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. And we intend to continue to work on that. I don't think many of the members realize that the anger and hostility that they see and hear out in the nation is actually being led by members of Congress.

I will finally say to you that it is so bad, that I don't think a parent listening to this show, would say to his or her children, look, I want you to watch CSPAN, watch the leaders of our nation and learn how to disagree at a high level with others.

MARTIN: And to that point, Congressman West - incoming Congressman West from Florida says that he's interested in joining the Congressional Black Caucus, unlike his colleague Tim Scott. They are, of course, the two African-American Republicans being seated in this Congress. There have not been African-American Republicans in the Congress for some time now. Will he be welcome in the group? And how do you think you will incorporate him into your group?

Rep. CLEAVER: Well, you know, there are a lot of prerequisites to joining any group. But to join the Congressional Black Caucus is rather simple. You just need to be black. And I never met the gentleman personally, but the photographs that I've seen pretty much suggest that he's black. So, he is welcome into the Congressional Black Caucus. That's never been a question with us.

I think there have been those who've raised that question because it further feeds into this frenzy out in the country about, you know, how can we generate a higher level of discord? And you've not heard one single CBC member say that he was not welcome. There have been Republicans in the caucus previously.

MARTIN: You're listening to a special edition of TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're here at the U.S. Capitol to mark the swearing in of the 112th Congress. I'm joined by Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. That's who you just heard. He is the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. And Charles Gonzalez is also with us. He's the incoming chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Congressman Gonzalez, same question to you, what are you going to do to improve the level of discourse, as Congressman Cleaver was describing it, on Capitol Hill and to work across the aisle, as it were, as many Americans say they want to see?

Rep. GONZALEZ: Well, it's something that we've always done and that we will continue and it's something that Chairman Cleaver pointed out. You start off with civil discourse and it has to be marked by good faith debate. And you can only control your part of that equation, and we will continue to do that.

The other thing is we will be offering constructive alternatives. It's not just a question of saying no to the Republican initiatives, but we have to come up with something that also will work, but we think will work a heck of a lot better and address all of the concerns in the interests that we represent. And if they're open to that discussion, which we hope that they are, then we will move forward.

I think you may have pointed out that the public is rather upset with us. They don't see true statesmanship or leadership. What they see is a lot of political posturing. I'm hoping that's not going to happen. The problem is that we have some folks already saying they're - all of what's going to be done this year and next year is in preparation for November 2012. That's what we need to avoid and that will be our focus.

MARTIN: Charles Gonzalez will serve as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the upcoming Congress. He is a representative from Texas.

Emanuel Cleaver is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in the current session of the Congress, the 112th. He represents Missouri. They were both kind enough to join us here at the Capitol.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. GONZALEZ: My pleasure.

Rep. CLEAVER: Good to be here with you. Go Chiefs.

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