Black Congressional Leaders Split on Clinton, Obama

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With a close race between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, members of the Congressional Black Caucus are split in their support of the two candidates. Two caucus members — Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Rep. Laura Richardson of California — discuss the division.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: a look ahead to the crucial role of Ohio and the next week's presidential primary. Former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who represents Ohio in Congress, gives his take. And we'll look at how these high stakes political politics are playing out in the foreign press. But first, we want to talk about how the ongoing battle between Senators Clinton and Obama is playing out with one particular group: the Congressional Black Caucus.

Yesterday, Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, formerly switched his support to the presidential bid of Senator Obama, abandoning his long-time endorsement of Senator Hillary Clinton. Congressman Lewis made the switch after voters in his district overwhelmingly supported Obama. Congressman Lewis, who's bravery in some of the most violent confrontations of the Civil Rights Movement have made his a legendary figure from the era, told a report his decision was one of the most difficult he has ever made.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): It was easier to walk across that bridge and face those state troopers and be beaten and left bloody. But there come a time when you have to make a decision. As a superdelegate to the Democratic Convention next summer, I will be casting my vote for Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Lewis's shift mirrors the dilemma of many Americans nationwide, but it highlights an especially emotional split between the Congressional Black Caucus. To date, the Caucus has been split virtually down the middle between Obama and Clinton. Here with us in the studio to talk about the personal and political challenges of choosing sides this year are Congressman Elijah Cummings of the Seventh District of Maryland. He's a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he supports Obama. Also with us, Congresswoman Laura Richardson of the 37th District of California. She's one of the newest members of the Caucus, having won a special election earlier this year or last year, and she endorses Clinton. Thank you both so much for being here with us.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): It's good to be with you.

Representative LAURA RICHARDSON (Democrat, California): Thank you Michel, for having us.

MARTIN: You heard Congressman Lewis talk about hard a decision this was for him, and I'd like to ask each of you, was it that difficult for you? Ms. Richardson?

Rep. RICHARDSON: This was not a difficult decision for me. I've known Senator Clinton for over 10 years. She's come to my district. She's heard the issues. She's seen the people, and she's actually worked with me to address those issues. So for me, this decision isn't about who I might like as an individual. It's not personal. It's not emotional. It's about I'm a member of Congress to — I'm here to take care of my district. And so my decision was to pick the best person who knew our issues, who had a record of delivering on them and who had a commitment to work with me in the future. I did not have any prior experiences with Senator Obama, and so hence, a 10-year relationship with someone meant something to me.

MARTIN: Congressman Cummings.

Rep. CUMMINGS: It was a very easy decision for me, also. I had known Senator Obama for a while. And to tell you the truth, he had called me about a year ago and asked me to run his Maryland campaign. And I asked him could he win, and was he serious? And he said yes. And I saw it as an opportunity. I had done a lot for the Clintons, who I - first of all, I think Hillary Clinton is a great candidate. I had done a lot for her husband when he was president. As a matter of fact, I defended him to the hilt.

But there came a time when I felt that this young man, who I could really relate to, who I felt a lot of people looked over, saw as invisible, but had the audacity to run for the presidency of the United States. And I believe in him. And so I've spent the last year campaigning for him. And I've got to tell you, when I first started helping him in Maryland, I could not get one single person to help me. And now we've got six or 7,000 volunteers in Maryland.

MARTIN: But your district in the so-called Potomac Primary, basically, went along with your choice. But Laura Richardson, your district did go Obama. How has that played out for you since?

Rep. RICHARDSON: My district actually was about 47 percent to 53, 54 percent. So it was not a wide margin as some of the other Congressional CBC members, as their districts have reflected.

MARTIN: Not to mention that overall, Senator Clinton did take California. But she didn't win your district.

Rep. RICHARDSON: Right. I was going to bring that point forward. It has not been an issue in my district. In fact, I have not received tons of phone calls. I haven't received tons of emails. My constituents, I have a very diverse district. It goes from Compton and Watts and Carson to Long Beach and Signal Hill. And so I have a wide basis of people who all have different perspectives and things that are important to them.

And so my constituents, what I did, I felt so passionate about this race and people understanding the differences of the two candidates, that I actually did a robocall myself, an automated call that I said to my constituents who I was supporting and why. And the only constituent who seemed concerned about my choice wasn't someone who called me. I actually had called her regarding a another matter. So I'm not seeing this upswell and, you know, confusion or concern in the constituency that I represent. They know who I am. They know why I made the decision, and they have the ability to make their individual choice of what they felt was right. But they also know that I have a choice to make the decision of what's right for our district as a whole.

MARTIN: Talk to me about that, if you would. What do you say to those who argue, number one, if your constituents have spoken on this point, then it is your duty to reflect their interests? And what do you say, number two, to the argument that what's the point of having a Congressional Black Caucus if when you have a qualified African—American candidate, members of the Caucus don't support him?

Rep. RICHARDSON: Well, you asked me two questions there. First of all, I would say to you that to my constituents, when we vote, I'm not - I'm voting for, as I said, for members of people who are in Compton and Watts, but I'm also voting for people who are in Signal Hill and who are in Long Beach. And I think the key that the voters have to understand, their vote was taken into account as mine was as an individual. But the role of a superdelegate is very different. And there are oftentimes - and I'm sure Chairman Cummings would agree - this isn't the only time where we vote slightly different than what our constituents might think.

I may think, for example, we need to bring our troops home. And if you were to take a poll of my district, some people might say, well, it's okay to keep them there for another year. We, the positions we are put in, we have additional information oftentimes that we're provided, longer standing relationships that we have, and we're able to take that information and make I think, a more holistic approach in terms of how we do it.

Now the second question that you asked me is a very important one, because when I look at my particular district, my most critical point that I want to address is - you said if we have an African—American who is qualified as a CBC member, why isn't everyone supporting him? You know, I'm going to go back to the dream, you know, the speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. We can't pick when we chose not to discriminate. We can't pick when we're going to talk about equality. What the dream said was, that we would be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin.

So when I'm trying to become a member of Congress, when I want people who are Caucasian to vote for me, I want them to vote for me because I'm best qualified, not because I'm African—American. And so that point is so important because although Senator Obama I believe is qualified and he's good, I don't believe he's the best qualified. And that's the difference for me.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with two members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Laura Richardson of the 37th District of California and Congressman Elijah Cummings of the 7th District of Maryland about how they decided whom to support for the presidential election. Congressman Cummings, what do you say about that?

Rep. CUMMINGS: First of all, let me say this, Michel. A lot of people, when I read the blogs, they seem to think that there's this big rift within the Congressional Black Caucus. I think we have a lot of trust and faith in each other. And I think that if you talk to Laura, she would say that nobody is pressuring her - I don't, I guess that's what she would say - within the Caucus. And I certainly haven't felt any pressure from anybody asking me to come to Ms. Clinton.

But I think that, for me, it's the same - I could take the same criteria that she has used and apply it to Barack. We just come out with different people to support.

MARTIN: But in past elections, the CBC has generally endorsed a candidate as a unified body. They've generally waited until after the nominee's been selected and then endorse as a group.

Rep. CUMMINGS: I think what we had here was a situation where Mrs. Clinton, a lot of the support came out early, because clearly - and I'm not saying that they would have changed if they had known what they know now. But clearly, she was the odds-on favorite. I mean, come on now.

MARTIN: Based on?

Rep. CUMMINGS: I mean, just based on the polls. I mean, in some areas, she was - Barack Obama was 40 points down. I mean, he had no organization. He had no money. As I've said, he was unseen, unnoticed, unappreciated and unapplauded. So, I mean, Mrs. Clinton would have been a logical person to go to. And to be frank with you, if Obama wasn't running, I would be with Hillary Clinton, no doubt about it.

MARTIN: But could I ask you though, just very bluntly, how important is race as a factor in your decision?

Rep. CUMMINGS: I would be lying if I didn't tell you - if I said that race was not significant. But, you know, in this whole process, this has been such a wonderful process for me. At 57 years old, I never dreamed, Michel, that I would see an African—American man who - or woman - who had carried out the very things that I've taught my children to do. Go out and be the best that you can be. This guy, Law Review, Harvard, go out there and serve the public. He's done that. I mean, he's done everything I as a parent, would want my child to do. And then the question becomes am I going to use him? Am I going to support him? Ms. Clinton and the president, they've had their chance, and now I want to see him have his chance.

MARTIN: Laura Richardson, I think it's only fair to ask you. How does - you've got both and gender to consider, and I also do have to take the point that, you know, that men are a gender, too. So I don't think it's necessarily fair to just ask women this question, but the issue has been surfaced because there is a historic opportunity to vote for a woman as president. So important was gender for you?

Rep. RICHARDSON: Well, what's interesting in particular was my support of Senator Clinton versus Senator Obama. Not only is it gender, it's race. I come from a bi-racial family. My mother is white and my father is black. I'm 45 years old. He's 46 years old. So if there is a poster person who you would think would be supporting Senator Obama, it would be me. But, again, we are talking about the next president of the United States. And I feel, overwhelmingly, that we need the person with the most experience.

And let me give you an example. I recently was in the Middle East, and I had a chance to talk to leaders of Oman, of Dubai, been to South Africa, and everyone is talking about this election. And people want to know what's going to happen. And I ask them, what do you think and who would you like to see. Out of all these leaders they've only mentioned person. Now I've been in congressional delegations with Republicans with Democrats, women, different races. But they say Senator Clinton because they know her. She's been there. And so to me, the position of president of the United States has to go beyond race. It has to go beyond gender. It has to go beyond the issues of commander-in-chief and the job that the person does and who's best qualified to do it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much, Congresswoman Laura Richardson of California, Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. To be continued. Just ahead we're going to continue our conversation about politics, turning our attention to the crucial primary contest in Ohio and the take from abroad from a group of distinguished foreign correspondents. That's coming up next on TELL ME MORE.

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