NY Congresswoman Welcomes 'Tell Me More'

The host and producers of Tell Me More are in the Big Apple for the first of three broadcasts from New York City. Rep. Yvette Clark, a Democrat from Brooklyn, gives the program a big welcome. The freshman congresswoman discusses her plans for Brooklyn and pride for her Jamaican-American heritage.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Today we are delighted both to join the WNYC family and to be broadcasting from New York. In a moment, I connect with one of my oldest friends back in our old neighborhood in Brooklyn. But first, a newsmaker interview with Congresswoman Yvette Clark, a Brooklyn native and a Jamaican-American who represents the 11th District of New York. She was elected to the House of Representatives in November of 2006 and joins us in the studio in New York. Thank you for coming. I'm so glad you could be here to welcome me back home.

Representative YVETTE CLARK (Democrat, Brooklyn, New York): Welcome back. Welcome back, Michel. It's great to have you here in New York.

MARTIN: Thank you. As I mentioned, this is our first week on the air here in New York. For our national audience, could you tell us a little bit about your district, the people, the neighborhoods?

Representative CLARK: It's just a lovely district in the heart of Brooklyn, taking in many very diverse constituencies, fabulous neighborhoods. We're talking about Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Carroll Gardens, Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, Flatbush, which is where I'm from, Brownsville and East Flatbush.

MARTIN: Now these are names that people will have heard, but not always in the most flattering context. You know what I mean? When sometimes these neighborhoods have made the news, it hasn't always been for the greatest of reasons. How has the district changed? You've lived there your whole life.

Representative CLARK: I've lived there my whole life and it's revitalized with each wave of new folks who move into the community. A big bustling immigrant community from around the world, every conceivable religion that exists, as well as, you know, a diversity of people in terms of incomes and wealth distribution. We have got, you know, people from the LGBT community, one of the largest in the city of New York next to Greenwich Village, so you can imagine the diversity of the population that I serve.

MARTIN: You mention the immigrant heritage. I noticed that you put your Caribbean heritage front and center on your official biography. You say, Yvette Clark is a Brooklyn native whose roots are firmly planted in her Jamaican heritage. Your parents were born in Jamaica. You know, we live in a time when immigration is such a hot-button issue. Is there something you're trying to communicate by putting your heritage front and center?

Representative CLARK: Yeah. I think it's important for folks to, you know, not live episodically. We have a very rich heritage of people who came from around the world to build America, and that continues to be the case today. People, you know, we have first, second, third generation and so forth, and people still see America as a beacon of opportunity, and they will continue to come here to help us as we continue to look at new frontiers, re-developing of America as everyone sees we're in a place now where there's so many areas that we have to project our intellect and our ability, whether it's renewable energies, which is something that is huge, we need the talent.

We need everyone with their shoulder to the wheel, so I think that it was important that people know that, you know, people from around the world are what makes America a great nation.

MARTIN: I want to talk for a minute about what's going on in Washington. As a freshman, you were able to have a bill to provide tax relief to military families included in a comprehensive tax relief bill for military families and veterans. That bill was just signed a week or so ago by the president. That's a pretty big deal for a freshman. I just wanted to ask, you know, briefly if you could, what the bill does and how you were able to do that?

Representative CLARK: Yeah, well, I thought it was important that we remember that we're not only at war, but that we'll have individuals who'll be coming back to our communities, and they deserve to have the type of support infrastructure that is of the 21st century and worthy of their service. Oftentimes in our history we have not given veterans the opportunity to reintegrate back into our communities with an assurance that they can be successful, and I believe that this amendment, signed by the president now, will enable those veterans and their families, and by extension the entire community, to at least begin to become whole.

You know, the experiences that our military folks, our men and women face, I don't think any of us can understand the depths of its impact on their lives, and reintegrating back into our communities, particularly in these economic times, are going to be a source of extra stress compounding what they've just experienced on our behalf.

MARTIN: But how did you do it? I mean, a lot of times, freshmen, the only reason they get a bill passed is that they're perceived to be in trouble, and leadership, you know, gives them a bill so that they can have something to show for. That doesn't seem to have been the case with you. You were elected with 89 percent of the vote or something like that, so how did you do it? Is it just a matter of identifying, you know, the right issue in the right way? What happened?

Representative CLARK: Exactly. You identify the right issue and you know that it's a win-win for your colleagues and for your - for the administration. Who can turn their backs on the needs of veterans right now? I think that's something that unites all Americans and that's what I was looking to do. I looked to develop public policy where there's going to be a win-win at the end of the day, and that's why I think it was embraced by my colleagues.

MARTIN: Overall though, many people have the impression that Congress just is not getting anything done, you know, there are a lot of major problems that we're dealing with, high energy prices, record housing foreclosures, just to name a few, and a lot of people have the sense the lawmakers are kind of sitting there arguing or twiddling their thumbs while all this is going on. Is that impression wrong or is it just unrealistic to expect very much in an election year?

Representative CLARK: Yeah. I think that part of it is true. We are arguing. There's still a lot of obstruction that's taking place on the Hill, unfortunately. We have two branches of government, we have a two-party system, and all of that spells struggle. Right now, of course, the Democrats are in power, but it's a slim majority that we hold in the House of Representatives.

Fast forward to the Senate, you know, and there again you see a slim majority, and then you have a Republican president who has been focused like a laser on his personal agenda and has ignored, to a large extent, the outcry of Americans. What we've done is we've begun the drumbeat in the House of Representatives that says, this is our time to wake up. This is our time to make things happen for Americans. We've pressed forward with really great innovative legislation but we need to have our partners on the other end. It has to be a bipartisan coming together.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. It's our debut broadcast in New York and we're speaking with New York Congresswoman Yvette Clark, a Democrat from Brooklyn.

Talk about an argument, you supported Senator Hillary Clinton in the primary. She and Senator Obama had some big unity events over the last couple of days. I have to admit, I went by one in Washington. There was heckling, there was hissing, there were people there saying that they would never support Obama, so do you think that that's true? I mean, do you really think that there really are still these deep divisions?

Representative CLARK: Well, I think that there are going to be some folks who are going to use any excuse not to support Senator Obama, whatever it's going to be - cutting off their nose despite their face. We have a Democratic nominee. He's going to be going up against John McCain, and I think that it's important that people really take a moment, take a deep breath and reflect on the values and concerns that they have and what it means to move this nation forward.

For me, John McCain is out of the question. What he is pronounced is nothing more than a third term of what we've experienced through George Bush. If we're really looking for change, if we're really looking to have a new administration that takes us into the 21st century, I don't see how harboring ill will or hard feelings is going to get us to that point. So there are going to be those - I mean, we're all human beings, we all experience things differently - that are certainly not going to be as supportive as we hoped or we would want, but, you know, that's everyone's individual prerogative.

I think the mass of the Democratic Party is coming together and it's a wonderful thing. The energy that I see coming from all across the country, people who are really motivated and understand that this is our time to make a demonstrative change in our nation.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there are some suggestions that particularly members of the black caucus who supported Senator Clinton might be vulnerable to a primary challenge next time around. Some people saying, look, if you're gonna have a black caucus and if you have a qualified African-American candidate for high office and if you don't support him, what's the point of having a caucus? Do you think that's true? Do you think that your support for Senator Hillary Clinton might come back to haunt you in the next election?

Representative CLARK: Well, I would hope not because I would hope we've gotten past the whole idea of a monolithic black community, that we can embrace the diversity of decision making. We're all in the same party. We all espouse the same values. We chose different individuals who were seeking the presidential nomination, but at the end of the day we had a very deep bench of very qualified candidates. I don't hear people saying that about people who supported Joe Biden, John Edwards, and the whole list of members from our party that ran.

So, you know, I'm hoping that we've reached that level where we're not going to be judged based on a decision. We're all in favor now of seeing Senator Obama become our next president, and I think that's the goal.

MARTIN: Yvette, I have to mention this very interesting detail about you, that you succeeded your mother on the New York City Council. I think you were the first mother-daughter succession ever on the council. Certainly, one of the very few around the country.

Interesting, this whole question of the "glass ceiling." One of the reasons that some of the people who, you know, who were at these unity events, who were very angry, talked about the fact that they think that if Senator Clinton, somebody as qualified as she couldn't, you know, make it to the final, then there's something wrong here, that there really is still this glass ceiling. Do you think that there is a glass ceiling for women in politics?

Representative CLARK: There is a glass ceiling. There's a - I wouldn't even say it's a ceiling. I would say it's a marginalization, you know. I think that the vision of what women can accomplish is one that has been skewed by being in a male-dominated society for so long.

We're doing very well. We're making strides and I say to people, I don't experience the same level of antagonism in the workplace that perhaps women who preceded me, who were the pioneers, who, you know, were there amongst very few women, experienced. And that's a good thing. Because I don't have to concern myself with that fight along with all the other fights that have to take place. People fought that and won that. And one day we will have a woman as president. I'm very certain of that.

MARTIN: And how's your mom doing?

Representative CLARK: She is fabulous. I can't keep up with her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke of the 11th Congressional District, which includes parts of my hometown of Brooklyn. She was kind enough to join us in our New York bureau. Thank you so much for stopping by.

Representative CLARK: And thank you for having me, Michel. Welcome back.

MARTIN: Thank you.

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