LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Kweisi Mfume : The Driving Force Behind the Black Caucus’ Increasing Clout

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<i> Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times based in Washington. She interviewed Kweisi Mfume in his office</i>

In his political life-and-death battle to resurrect his crime bill, President Bill Clinton sought eight elusive votes from foes and friends alike. A major target were 10 Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped to defeat a key procedural vote that stalled $30-billion worth of new cops, new prisons and new prevention programs.

At week’s end, the White House had persuaded three of them, and possibly more, to switch on a new vote in spite of their moral opposition to a bill that significantly expands the death penalty. Regardless of the outcome, the 40-member black caucus has certainly flexed its muscle in Washington.

This increasingly influential political bloc, chaired by Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), played a pivotal role in the law-and-order debate. Black Democrats contended that tougher sentences and more prisons have not reduced crime. They insisted on adding drug-treatment and recreational programs, like midnight basketball, and other prevention efforts derided as pork by Republicans hell-bent to hand Clinton an embarrassing political defeat.


To counter the bill’s expansion of the death penalty to 60 new crimes, including carjacking, the caucus, which includes Julian Dixon, Maxine Waters and Walter Tucker, from Southern California, supported the Racial Justice Act. This provision would have allowed Death Row defendants to challenge their sentences based on statistics that indicate racial bias in the imposition of capital punishment. No Racial Justice Act, Mfume had threatened the White House, no black votes on the rule that would allow the crime bill to proceed.

The give-and-not-much-take took weeks. The delay gave opponents more time to chip away at the fragile support for the crime bill. The GOP leadership targeted Republicans who had voted for the more liberal bill in the House. The National Rifle Assn. targeted anyone who was vulnerable on the assault-weapons ban. The hardball paid off when the “no” votes also included unlikely allies: 10 liberal black Democrats.

In Washington, it ain’t over until it’s over. Mfume, 45, believes in second chances. He dropped out of high school when he was 16. He became a teen-age father; his five sons range in age from 21 through 26. Mfume now represents the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up.

That he has taken his fight from the Baltimore streets to the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus will not soon be forgotten.


Question: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted with the Republican leadership against the rule governing debate on the crime bill. Wasn’t that an unholy alliance?

Answer: It’s down to seven. . . . It might be down to six. I’ve talked with members; the President has talked with members, and people in their districts have talked with them. I’m starting to see some movement among the group of 10 who really were functioning on principle regarding the death penalty. It’s a position I can appreciate. But some have come to realize that the fate of the entire bill is now tied to their vote . . .


Whether are not it’s an unholy alliance is debatable, because it was not an alliance with Republicans but also an alliance with 58 Democrats. There were a number of members of our party, who either reacting to the ban on assault weapons or the prevention programs, decided not to vote for it. It was kind of a triumvirate. In that regard, I don’t want to call it unholy, but it was certainly unproductive.

Q: Does party loyalty count for anything?

A: (The Congressional Black Caucus has) proven to be the most loyal aspect of the Democratic Party. . . . It ought to be a reciprocal loyalty. The party has to be loyal also to those who have proven to be the most loyal to the party.

Q: You said you were voting against the rule.

A: That was a negotiating ploy at the time, because we were going through the conference committee. The threat, we hoped, would gain us a concession on the racial-justice provision.

We put up a good fight. . . . I sat there with a poker face for six weeks trying to get this done, but once the game was over in that regard--the conference committee had reported its bill out--there was nothing else to do. You could vote against the bill for the sake of voting against the bill, but you certainly weren’t going to get the Racial Justice Act. What we were going to get was an executive order by the President and a commission.


Q: What else did you get?

A: We went through the same process on assault weapons in April, threatening then to vote against the rule if we didn’t get the assault-weapons ban. People accused us of being obstructionists and said it would be detrimental to the party and we would never get the assault-weapons ban--but we got it. . . .

We threatened again to tie up the entire process if we didn’t get a narrowing of the “three strikes and you’re out” provision, because it was too broadly applied. The caucus believed it would affect disproportionately people who really should be getting second chances. It would create a system of geriatric prisons, because the law was written so broadly that no matter what you did three times that was against the law, chances are you were going to jail for the rest of your life. . . . We wanted it to apply only to felonies, vicious felonies and capital offenses. . . . We forced it, because it was a matter of principle, and we won.

Q: What about the prevention programs?

A: When the Administration wanted to present a crime bill as a Christmas present to the nation, the Congressional Black Caucus said we will fight to make sure that there are prevention programs in the bill just as there are punishment mechanisms. . . . People said that’s economic stimulus or maybe you’re talking about a jobs proposal. We said this bill ought to be prevention and punishment. . . . Again, we were called obstructionists--we were successful.

Q: Does the crime bill help or hurt African Americans?


A: I don’t care what color you are, if you are a criminal, you aren’t going to like the crime bill. Beyond that, if you are looking for some sense of security, for bans on weapons that are in our streets, for additional police officers and for programs for inner-city and rural young people, the crime bill helps you.

Q: The majority of young black men are law-abiding. One in four gets into trouble. How will the bill help them?

A: There’s been a lot of discussion about midnight basketball, which, by the way . . . is very regulated and supervised, and proven to be successful in giving people an alternative, in this case, a sporting alternative. There are educational alternatives. There are all types of programs that . . . are really prevention. I happen to believe that an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure.

Q: Is the black caucus more aggressive this term?

A: Absolutely, and deliberately. . . . I wanted to bring a sense of activism to the dynamics of what we do. Not to say “in your face” to the Democratic leadership or to the White House but to lift the concerns of the people we represent to a different level, so that we were no longer being taken for granted. . . . Things have changed significantly. They’ve changed a little bit because of the new math, having 40 members as opposed to 20. But they’ve also changed as a result of the new activism--being able to say to the leadership of the House and of the Senate and to the White House that while we are all on the same team, we are not going to be relegated to sitting on the bench. . . . The days of sitting on the bench and waiting to participate are over.

Q: What’s the current relationship between the caucus and the White House?


A: It’s a good relationship right now. It’s had its low points. The Lani Guinier debacle clearly was a very low point. The issue of Haiti continues to be a low point. Above and beyond those two instances, it has been a good, cordial and respectful relationship. Respectful is a key word, because although the President and the White House may not always agree with where we come down on issues, the President continues to respect our decision-making process and the principles on which we make our judgments. We have tried to return that respect . . .

Q: Why the tensions over Haiti? Isn’t the Administration’s point person, Bill Gray, one of your former members?

A: It doesn’t matter who the point person is. It matters what the policy is. We expected . . . the President to change policy (on Haiti). . . . Shortly after the Inauguration, there was an announcement that the Bush policy of repatriation would continue. That was a disappointment for the caucus. . . . Yet, we were prepared, even at that announcement, not to break ranks. . . . It was only after nine or 10 months of not being able to bring any real movement to the position of the Administration that you saw the activism begin among many of us.

Q: Does the caucus support an invasion?

A: The caucus has members who support the notion of invasion, who for whatever reason--whether they have a tremendous amount of Haitians in their district, whether they represent one of the Southern states that is being impacted--have a different perspective on this and . . . are tired of waiting . . .

Then the caucus has other members who have tried to be consistent on policy with respect to invasion. Ron Dellums is a case in point. Ron has always advocated that the U.S. not summarily invade any nation, that we respect the sovereignty of nations and use diplomatic tools short of a declaration of war. Those are the two ends of the perspective. Most members of the caucus are in the middle.


Q: Does the caucus support sanctions against Nigeria?

A: There are members who support the notion of sanctions there. There are others who think they don’t have enough information, or there has not been enough time within the country to work things out, so they are a little hesitant. We have not developed a caucus position that says we ought to impose sanctions. What we’re saying is we ought to use diplomatic channels, and the full weight of the United States in terms of its foreign policy, to make sure that the situation in Nigeria does not degenerate and create a civil war so massive that it would make Rwanda look like a sandlot fight.

Q: Closer to home and back to the crime bill, is it an urban-aid bill?

A: It definitely provides aid and assistance in the form of prevention programs, which I think . . . is long overdue. You just can’t keep locking up people and throwing away the key. You’ve got to find a way to prevent people from breaking the law to begin with by providing options. We can start by producing an economy that, in turn, produces jobs. A job is still the best social program.

Q: Will the crime bill become law?

A: It will become law very shortly. But the crime bill is not a panacea. . . . It’s just one step. . . . We need effective welfare reform . . . meaningful social legislation that deals with the issue of discrimination . . . health-care legislation. . . . So many people are faced with the double burden of being unemployed and untrained, and then have problems of health care, which creates another need for money. When you look at the lack of options out there, more people are opting toward crime and criminal activity.


Q: What’s the political legacy from this fight on the crime bill?

A: We were able to take a crime bill that was absolutely punitive in nature and put into it billions of dollars in prevention money to assist in giving hope and opportunity and options to the young people of our communities. It is a bill that began with no reference to weapons that now includes, for the first time in our nation’s history, a ban on assault weapons. . . . More than anything else, it carries the shape of not just six months of effort but six months of activism and assertiveness. . . . It is not the end-all . . . but it is a worthwhile beginning, because prevention now is part of our discussion. When we talk about crime, it is not all about punishment.*