One ‘No’ Vote on Crime Bill Provokes Earful Back Home : Congress: Tennessee Democrat gets mixed signals from voters. But one thing is clear--they want action.
Stan Cavness made a beeline for Rep. Jim Cooper as soon as the Tennessee Democrat arrived at an anti-violence “youth summit” that drew hundreds of young people to the local community college this weekend.
Cavness, a captain in the Dyersburg Police Department, had only one thing on his mind: the stunning vote in the House of Representatives on Thursday to derail the $33-billion crime bill. Cooper was one of 58 Democrats who joined with all but 11 Republicans to turn away the legislation on a procedural vote.
“I’m not much into partisan politics,” Cavness told the soft-spoken Cooper. “But we’ve got to have a crime bill. We’re hurting out here in the trenches.”
Somewhat defensively, Cooper quickly promised Cavness that Congress would pass an “improved bill” this week. But talking with local reporters a few minutes later, he laid out firm conditions for supporting any resurrected crime bill: cutting out wasteful “pork-barrel” spending such as a grant to a university in the district of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), reducing the bill’s overall price tag and, most important, voting separately on the bill’s ban on 19 types of assault weapons.
If the House leadership simply brings the same bill back to the floor this week, Cooper said, he will vote “no” again.
President Clinton is counting on a groundswell of popular support in places like this to revive the crime bill, which fell eight votes short in last week’s tense and emotional showdown. Democrats want to bring the bill back to the floor this week, though they remain divided on whether to change the bill, as Cooper suggests, or simply attempt another test of strength--hoping that eight legislators felt enough heat at home this past weekend to switch their votes.
A day spent campaigning with Cooper, who is now running for the Senate, offered mixed signals on that count: a clear public sense that Washington should act on crime, diluted by a lack of clear awareness about the crime bill’s contents and exactly what happened in Congress last week.
Had Clinton spent Saturday in this small town 70 miles north of Memphis, he would have been encouraged by much of what he heard. At the “Stop The Violence Now!” conference, school principals, police officers, ministers and community leaders spoke urgently about the prevalence of drugs and juvenile violence in these rural surroundings.
All day, sponsors shepherded children as young as 7 into sessions intended to instill the lesson that “choices had consequences,” as one teacher put it.
“I regret the vote profoundly,” said the Rev. Charles F. McCright, who coordinated the conference with the efficiency of a drill sergeant. “Something has to be done.”
But relatively few here directly pressed Cooper on his vote, and he heard less about it as he campaigned in south-central Tennessee through the afternoon and early evening. Near day’s end, over a dinner of Cajun fried catfish and coleslaw at a country music festival in tiny College Grove, he insisted that only three people all day had mentioned the crime bill.
Others may not have known to. At “Tina Turner Day” in Nutbush, the singer’s postmark-sized hometown, Robert Carpenter was stunned and angered to learn that Congress had turned down the crime bill.
“With all the crime going on . . . that’s the main bill we need,” he said from behind his barbecue stand as Cooper shook hands outside the one-room Tina Turner Museum in the weather-beaten local church.
In College Grove, Jim, a 69-year-old Navy veteran who declined to give his last name, did not raise the issue when Cooper sat across from him over dinner. But in response to a question after Cooper had left, he said the crime bill vote typified what he didn’t like about Washington: partisan fights that paralyzed action.
The assault-weapon ban, which generated intense opposition from the National Rifle Assn., drew little concern along Cooper’s path through this gun-toting state. Cooper voted against the ban when the House narrowly approved it in May.
Watching as fiddlers and buck dancers competed at the College Grove Music Festival in the soft summer dusk, Ollie B. Mautin, a leathery 60-year-old from nearby Lewisburg, made clear he was no liberal. A lifelong hunter, Mautin said he wants more capital punishment and less welfare. But he sees nothing wrong with banning automatic weapons: “These Gatlin’ guns, these submachine guns, why would anybody want them?”
Of greater concern along Cooper’s stops were arguments that the bill was larded with unnecessary spending. “From what I had read, it had too much other stuff in it--social programs,” salesman Bob Holcomb said in Nutbush.
Even state Rep. Lois DeBerry, a Democrat and leader in the African American caucus, worried that “people tend to take federal money and it becomes play money. There’s nobody to watch over it.”
But, in fact, many at the “Stop the Violence Now!” conference said they see tangible benefits in programs that some critics dismissed as pork.
Cavness said the Police Department had been boosted by the three officers it had hired with a grant from a pilot program linked to last year’s federal budget deal. Even more important, he said, the department needed federal funds to help build a regional juvenile detention center--the nearest one is now in Memphis.
Robert Williams, who ran the housing authority in Humboldt, Tenn., said the city had been unable to raise the funds to start an after-school program at the local high school; he was hoping the crime bill’s prevention money could help.
Even midnight basketball, which critics of the bill made a symbol of its misguided priorities, drew wide support. John Glaze, the pastor at Ross United Methodist Church, said evening sports had helped move teen-agers off the streets in Memphis and nearby Jackson, and he was trying to raise the money to start a league at his church gymnasium here.
None of those initiatives would be guaranteed federal funding if the crime bill passed, but all would be eligible to compete for substantial sums: nearly $9 billion for local police departments, $900 million for after-school programs in troubled neighborhoods and $40 million for midnight basketball. Juvenile detention facilities would be eligible for money from the bill’s $6.5-billion fund for prison construction.
Nor did anyone in Dyersburg look on any federal program as a panacea. Tyles Davenport, the soft-spoken principal of the Dyersburg Middle School, said the root causes of crime and drug abuse run deeper: proliferation of teen-age mothers and single-parent families, a breakdown of discipline and religious faith. “Many of these parents did not start to instill the right values in the kids at an early age,” he said sorrowfully.
But like most of the others here, Davenport wanted the federal government to do its share.
Asked about concerns that the crime bill spent too much money, Michael Savage, the unit director for the Boys and Girls Club in Jackson, bristled and said: “What about the people spending their lives in funeral parlors funeralizing their sons?”
Cooper appeared eager to avoid crossing those sentiments. In an interview, he repeatedly pointed out that his vote was only against the rules by which the bill would have been debated on the House floor, not against the bill itself.
Told about the interest in midnight basketball in Dyersburg, he stiffened. “So in a $33-billion bill, they were talking about $40 million?” he asked derisively.
Reminded that those at the conference expressed interest in several of the bill’s other grant programs, he questioned whether they had really gone through the bill’s details. Besides, he insisted, with “prior grant programs, Tennessee has had to struggle just to get a few crumbs.”
When Glaze approached Cooper about the bill at the youth summit, the candidate offered him a much simpler message: Congress would produce an improved bill this week.
Later, Glaze said he was satisfied with Cooper’s promise, but he intended to keep a close eye.
“We want something done,” he said. “This is not utopia, and politics is give-and-take. The country needs that bill.”
* CLINTON’S PULPIT PITCH: President asked churchgoers to pray for crime bill passage. A10