Miami, Florida – For Don Graves, an assistant Treasury secretary who runs the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Monday night started out long, and got longer.
The fourth stop on the Congressional Black Caucus’ “For the People Jobs Initiative,” a series of town halls and job fairs that has taken members to Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and Miami (the next stop on the tour will be Los Angeles on August 30th) took place in the packed sanctuary at Mount Herman AME Church in Miami Gardens, the largest predominantly black municipality in the state.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who represents the district, hosted the town hall, which drew a slew of local dignitaries, including former Rep. Carrie Meek, who once held Wilson’s seat. Wilson in her opening remarks struck a positive note, crediting healthcare reform with hundreds of health industry jobs being offered during the CBC traveling job fairs, and referring to the upcoming dedication of a Washington D.C. memorial by the first black U.S. president.
Wilson also seemed to anticipate some of the fireworks to come when she told the crowd: “let’s remember who the real enemy is. The enemy is the tea party.”
At times, it seemed that not everybody on stage heeded Wilson’s advice.
WATCH REP. WATERS DISCUSS HOW PRES. OBAMA AND CBC CAN MEET:
At one point, California Reps. Laura Richardson and Maxine Waters, who introduced herself with “they say I’m a troublemaker,”) took turns confronting Graves, with Maxine Waters demanding that he use the words “tea party” to spell out who was obstructing progress in Washington. “Say it. Let me hear you say ‘tea party,’” Waters demanded, and then a short time later, as he tried to explain initiatives the White House has under way to stem the tide of joblessness in “harder hit communities,” she demanded, “say black! Say Black,” wanting Graves to refer specifically to African-American unemployment.
Later, Richardson demanded that a flustered Graves commit to walking the more than 50 pieces of legislation the CBC has tried to introduce in the House into the Oval Office.
“You don’t need to go through me to get to the president,” Graves said, as audience members demanded that he answer the questions being flung at him by the members, and one audience member yelled out, “does he know racism?” referring to the president.
“It may not always seem like the president hears you, but he does,” Graves tried to interject, but that answer didn’t satisfy Richardson, who continued to repeat “will you? Will you?” regarding her demand that Graves shepherd the CBC’s jobs legislation into the West Wing. Eventually, Graves committed to personally walk in the legislation, to which Waters demanded to know his age.
“I am 72 years old,” Waters said. “I don’t need you to walk anything into the Oval Office for me. If I have to go through you (to be heard by the president,) I might as well go home.”
The crowd inside Mount Herman seemed at times to turn on Graves, though he received some of the strongest applause when he was initially introduced as representing the president.
Members of the panel seemed at pains to try and strike a balance between their frustration and criticism, and support for the president. Wilson, who was among the first Florida politicians to endorse the then little known Senator Barack Obama of Illinois for president in 2007, said the CBC is “committed to this president’s re-election.”
CBC Chair Emanuel Cleaver, who Wilson introduced as representing Harry Truman’s former district in Missouri, told the crowd, “it’s not about Obama, Osama, your mama or my mama. It’s about jobs.”
“There’s not a hater up here on this stage,” he later told the crowd.“We’re not hear to make enemies or make mistakes,” Cleaver said. “We’re here to get results.” He added that the CBC decided to “move away from the complaint counter” and go out into the country to confront the jobs crisis firsthand.
With Hall at times calling for decorum, and reminding the audience that they were both on television — MSNBC covered the event and it was live streamed on TheGrio — some on the panel tried to steer the conversation away from the notion that the CBC is at odds with the president.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also sat on the panel, said “”the media wants to play us as anti the president. That’s a cruel hoax.”
“We know how to help him win,” Jackson continued. “Those close to him may know how to help him lose.”
At one point, Jackson seemed to become emotional, saying of the president, “we want to help the president win, but you can’t win with this much pain. These are allies who are hurting.”
But as uncomfortable as the panel was at times for the president’s representative, the Tea Party fared far worse, drawing loud jeers every time the vocal Republican faction was mentioned, and drawing sharp attacks from the stage. Jackson at one point likened the Tea Party movement to the segregationists who fought against integration in the 1950s and 60s, and to the confederacy.
“There are two tea parties,” Jackson said. “There’s the Boston Tea Party,” which fought against a dictatorial monarchy, and “there’s the Fort Sumpter Tea Party,” which fought to preserve slavery. “We are fighting the Fort Sumter Tea Party.”
Invoking the upcoming Washington D.C. memorial, which opened its visitor’s center to the media on Monday, Jackson said, “Dr. King fought against the Fort Sumpter Tea Party.”
Others on the stage struck a similar tone.
“One percent of the people [in the U.S.] control a third of the wealth,” said Cleaver, who is also a pastor. “So I get a holy ghost headache seeing people in Washington fight to protect the rich.”
Rep. Alcee Hastings, who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach County, Florida, decried the Senate, “where bills go to die,” decried the “new normal” of high unemployment, and said the “majority party” in the House “represents rich people.”
Hastings attacked Tea Party Republicans for going after unions, asking, “when did teachers and firefighters become bad people?”
Hastings said the saddest day he’s had in his more than 20 years in Congress, “was the day “we cut $500 million out of the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC)” during this year’s budget fight. “I’ve never seen such an attitude towards poor people,” he said of Tea Party Republicans.
“An act of political maturity”
While the atmosphere on the panel was contentious at times, with Waters, Cleaver and others chiding the president to do more to directly intervene in the higher than average jobless rates for black Americans,each of the panelists took pains to express support, even love, for the president, and a commitment to his re-election in 2012.
If there was a unifying theme among them, it was that the president, in the words of Miami NAACP president, Bishop Victor Curry, “deserves to be held accountable by us.”
“If he can count on 90-plus percent of our votes,” said Curry, who said he loves and respects President Obama, black Americans should be able to demand action from him. Curry said he doesn’t blame Obama for the economic mess the U.S. is in, and said feckless Democrats on Capitol Hill and lax voters who allowed the “same people who drove the truck into the ditch” to get back into power, are to blame, too.
Still, Curry called the White House’s reluctance to specifically address black suffering “the elephant in the room.”
“We believe in targeting,” said Waters, who repeatedly called for New Deal-style “WPA (Works Progress Administration) initiatives out of Congress, and for the president to “use the bully pulpit” to push for another “huge stimulus program,” with specific set-asides for black workers and contractors.
“Let the Tea Party try and fight it,” Waters said.
Such ideas are unlikely to make it out of the House, or through the Senate, to the president’s desk, but that reality didn’t seem to permeate the air of anticipation and pent up frustration inside the sanctuary.
Rep. Cedric Richmond, who represents parts of New Orleans that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, said blacks are a constituent group, just like gays, whose priorities he said have been the recipients of White House attention.
“We aren’t cutting any backroom deals,” Waters said, saying the members don’t “begrudge” rural communities, including some in Iowa, where the president traveled last week during his own bus tour, who have been the recipients of funding for biofeul and other White House initiatives. “We want it now. And we’re gonna fight til we can’t stand up no more.”
At one point, Hall asked the members if they “have the president’s ear.” At another point, she read a tweet asking if the town hall was more of a gripe session.
While some members offered specific ideas for the White House, with Cleaver calling for an extension of the payroll tax cut, Richardson calling for an end to war spending, including what she called “an occupation” in Libya, and others calling for the White House to push for more revenues and federal spending to create jobs as part of the 12-member “super committee” working on deficit reduction, the most concrete calls to action were for the audience, and for black voters.
Wilson pleaded with the crowd to vote, and to give Obama a second term, saying given the times and the Tea Party’s control of the GOP agenda, “if Obama steps out for black people in the middle of this, he will lose his re-election, and you know it.”
“I’ve served with the Tea Party people,” said Wilson. “I know them. You have a choice between re-electing Barack Obama or electing Michele Bachmann. And if you think you’re hurting now…”
At one point, Curry, followed by Cleaver, who is a pastor too, had the crowd on its feet as Curry preached to the crowd about going to the polls, and Cleaver told a story about a drive with his wife that turned into a miniature sermon about the country’s capability of “making a U-turn” and turning the jobs picture around.
“We sometimes disagree with the president, but disagreement does not mean disrespect or disassociation,” Cleaver said, calling it an “act of political maturity” for black Americans to be able to disagree with the first African-American president.
Cleaver said that when he spoke to President Obama, he told him “there are 43 CBC members, and 42 of us are committed to your re-election,” excluding Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida.
In the end, the panel was united in calling on African-Americans to vote in large numbers for Obama in 2012, but in the meantime, to push the White House to achieve concrete results for African-Americans.
“We can’t legislate and agitate at the same time,” Cleaver said.
“We’ll legislate. We need you to agitate.”