Black Leaders Feel Heat On Both Sides Of The Political Aisle

Democrats and Republicans have chosen leaders for the upcoming two-year session when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives. Both created new posts filled by African-Americans to guarantee diversity in the ranks. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel was censured for financial and fundraising misconduct; and Michael Steele loses support to keep his post at the helm of the Republican National Committee. Host Michel Martin discusses these developments with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Mary Kate Cary of U.S. New & World Report.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Friday features. We're going to talk politics, faith and get our shapeup at the Barbershop later in the program. We will meet with the new chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Representative Charlie Gonzalez of Texas. He's taking over at what could be a pivotal moment in American politics after midterm elections and as immigration reform heats up again. We'll hear what he has to say about all that in a few minutes.

And in Faith Matters, we'll hear about a new museum, the first, that tells the story of the Jewish people in America. But it has something for everybody. So we'll hear more about it.

But first, to matters of Congress. Each party has chosen leaders for the upcoming two-year session when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and expand their numbers in the Senate. Meanwhile, Congressman Charlie Rangel, the long-serving Democrat from Harlem and one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus tearfully tried to clear his name of ethics violations before the House Ethics Committee made its decision to recommend censure, a public rebuke.

That's where we'll start. And here to help us better understand the week that was and what's coming up, two seasoned political watchers who've guided us before, Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Mary Kate Cary, a columnist for U.S. News and World Report and a blogger and a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. Welcome back to you both. Thanks so much for joining us again.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Journalist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Thanks for having us.

Ms. MARY KATE CARY (Columnist, U.S. News and World Report): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So, let's start with Charlie Rangel simply because it was one of the more, I think, poignant moments of the week. Cynthia Tucker, the House Committee recommended censure for him for 11 ethics violations that had to do with financial and fundraising misconduct. Is that a serious outcome?

Ms. TUCKER: It's a very serious outcome and, quite frankly, one I didn't see coming, Michel. I thought that they were going to recommend a reprimand. Censure is the second most serious punishment they could recommend just short of expulsion.

And it's a very sad coda to what had been a very long and very distinguished career. He ended up pleading for mercy before the committee yesterday for leniency. But it looks like he's going to get this very tough finding of censure.

And unfortunately, he only has himself to blame. He could have taken a plea back in the summer, avoided this very public trial, and he likely would've ended up with a reprimand. I quite frankly don't think he understood how much trouble he was in.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from some of his comments before the committee. And we talked about this at the beginning of the week. He came in and actually walked out of the first day of the hearings because he said he didn't have counsel when he'd been pleading all along with the committee to, you know, expedite.

Ms. TUCKER: Hurry up. I want a speedy trial.

MARTIN: To hurry up, because I want a speedy trial, because I want to get this thing over with. And then he asked for a delay. And then after they rejected that, this is what he had to say. This was at the sentencing phase where they were trying to decide what the punishment would be. This is what he had to say.

Representative CHARLIE RANGEL (Democrat, New York): I do hope no matter what you decide in the sanction that you might see your way clear to say that this member that's on it to serve with all of you was not corrupt and there's no excuse for my behavior. And there was no intent for me ever to go beyond what has been given to me as a salary. I never attempted to enrich myself.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, I want to mention that the committee's recommendation was a 9-to-1 vote. So it was not along partisan lines at all.

Ms. CARY: No.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask, does this carry over into the next Congress in any way? Does this add to the tension between the two parties?

Ms. CARY: Well, it's the only bipartisan committee on the Hill. It's five Democrats and five Republicans. And I think John Boehner pointed that out when asked about it yesterday, that he stood behind their findings because it was a bipartisan panel.

And I think the fact that this took place just as all the freshmen were arriving for their orientation this week, I think the message came out loud and clear to the new people that the House rules over time have gotten more and more complicated. You know, I've been at cocktail parties here in Washington where they don't serve the food with forks because then it makes it a meal. So, you know, that's kind of crazy.

The other thing that struck me about all this was that if the head of the Ways and Means Committee cannot see clear how to pay the taxes correctly for that long, what about the rest of us? I think that's the big message here is the system needs to be reformed.

MARTIN: But nobody's talking about that. And I have to tell you that that struck me as well. And I'm also thinking about the fact that Tim Geithner, who's the Treasury secretary, was also criticized for not filling out his tax forms appropriately.

Ms. CARY: I think most Americans, unless you're filing an EZ form, most Americans are paying somebody to help them do their taxes, whether it's the software or it's H and R Block or it's a real live tax attorney.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly political chat with journalist and political watcher Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mary Kate Cary of U.S. News and World Report.

Now, and I have to say that this did not - was not a part of the conversation this week. But there was a racial overlay to this in the sense that a number of African-American members of Congress have been asking, you know, why is it that the African-American members seem to come under special scrutiny? They are the ones whose investigations are most visible. That discussion seemed to have dissipated by this week.

But there was, and also, another story this week around, you know, race, involving the leadership fight. Now, as we mentioned earlier, leadership choices were made this week on the House side. Republican John Boehner of Ohio will be the new speaker of the House, as anticipated. But on the Democratic side, you know, Nancy Pelosi has been retained as minority leader. But there was this fight between Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, who had been the number two and the number three over who would get that second spot. Because, of course, now that you're in the minority, fewer leadership spots.

The House decided to add a spot, in essence. Some undefined job called assistant leader. And, also, I have to say, on the Republican side, the freshmen added another spot to their leadership team. I think I can say so that they could add Tim Scott, who is the Republican of South Carolina. I don't know, do you think that's a fair characterization so that they could add Tim Scott. Mary Kate, I want to...

Ms. CARY: Well, they also added Kristi Noem.

MARTIN: Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who's also an exciting new figure in politics.

Ms. CARY: Right. But that was in a bigger pie. You still had the top three leadership spots in the Republicans. And the Democratic side it went to two spots. But then what the Republicans did was have a press conference yesterday where they brought out their "new leadership team," in quotes, and that was everybody from the head of the Republican conference, the policy committee, head of the NRCC, the Congressional, you know, Campaign Committee. And then they book ended it with Tim Scott and Kristi Noem as representatives of the new freshman class.

And that was to show, and they said this very publicly, that we heard the voice of the people. We understand it's the biggest freshman class ever. And we want to have their ideas and input, and they're going to hold our feet to the fire. And I thought that was a little different message than keeping the same three people over on the Democratic side.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because on the - because David Broder, who's a very well-respected political columnist for The Washington Post, was criticizing the Democrats saying this shows that they aren't able to make tough choices.

Ms. CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And but he didn't say anything about the fact that the Republicans decided to add spots that they don't normally have. Well, what do you think about the whole thing?

Ms. CARY: I think on the Democratic side, you even had Democrats saying it's the same old same old no change in the faces. I think that it's the smallest group of Democrats in the House since the Truman era. And so they are going to have this problem with keeping the old people happy, keeping - there aren't that many incoming new ones to include, which is a different problem on the Republican side. They got to figure out who they want to put forward.

And I think the reason they picked Tim Scott was he was one of two African-Americans elected on the Republican side, first time in many years, and I think they picked Kristi Noem because the size of the House Republican caucus for women increased 40 percent.

MARTIN: And they're exciting. You can understand why the Republicans want to put them forward. So, Cynthia, what do you think about that?

Ms. TUCKER: If you look at the Republican leadership, it's the same old same old also. John Boehner was House minority leader. Now he's speaker of the House. The top of the House Republican leadership is the same. What they have done is to create token positions for Kristi Noem and Tim Scott, just like the Democrats created a token position for James Clyburn.

Now, I would not argue that that's a bad thing on either side. I'm delighted that House Republicans have some real diversity. But it's also true that Tim Scott and Kristi Noem have not been given significant leadership roles.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of diversity on the Republican side, it's kind of an awkward segue, but what is up with that fight at the Republican National Committee over Michael Steele? What is up with that?

Ms. TUCKER: Here's the problem. The next big RNC meeting is in January, where they will decide whether to keep him or not. And it's up to him, first, to say whether he's going to put his name in for reelection. He has not said yet what his plan is. And that started this talk of let's get rid of him. And there's an old saying, when you're about to be run out of town on a rail, get out in front and call it a parade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: And so that would be my advice to Michael Steele, because he's starting to get run out of town on a rail. You had this guy, Gentry Collins, who was the political director, wrote this stinging four-page letter. And then there's another guy, Saul Anuzis, who did a similar thing a month ago with his newsletter. By the way, the name of his newsletter, Michel, "That's Saul, Folks."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Anyway, so...

MARTIN: Great. So he has a way with words, too. Now, we know that Michael Steele has made, he has a penchant for colorful phrasing and saying some spicy things that a lot of people don't, that, you know, makes headlines.

Ms. TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: But there are those who are saying, okay, he was a token to begin with. That he was basically elected as a counterweight to Obama. And now that that's been achieved, the Republicans have no further use for him. On the other hand, people are saying he puts his foot in his mouth and he didn't raise enough money. And so...

Ms. TUCKER: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: So, I'd like to ask you, do you think there's any truth to that?

Ms. TUCKER: I think the majority of the concern of RNC members is spent too much, raised too little and did not capitalize. It would have been a bigger win. It was almost like this was in spite of Michael Steele in terms of some of the things that went on.

MARTIN: But, on the other hand, Cynthia Tucker, people say, well, he would say - he's a guest on this program - he's been a change agent. I mean, he's kind of taken the fight to the Republicans, in some ways, that you need to clean up your own house. You can't just be doing the same old same old. You've got to change the way you do business. And what do you say to that?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, I think that Mary Kate has some very sound advice for Michael Steele. He should go ahead and resign - retire, choose not to run again, when he can claim credit for some significant changes. One of which is, there are two Republican, black Republicans in the House of Representatives for the first time in a very long time. There are more Latino Republicans in the House than there have ever been before. And so he can claim whether it's true or not that he helped bring those changes to the Republican Party.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, and also worked on health, too.

Ms. CARY: That's right.

MARTIN: We should talk about that sometime.

Ms. CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, thank you so much for joining us. They were here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much. And if I don't see you before the holiday, Happy Thanksgiving to you both.

Ms. CARY: Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, Happy Thanksgiving.

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