THEY’RE OUT IN THE COLD : THE NEW CONSERVATIVE AGENDA IN WASHINGTON COULD SPELL TROUBLE FOR MANY INNER CITY SERVICES AND FUNDING
For as many years a they have been in Congress--be it 2 or 16--Julian C. Dixon, Maxine Waters and Lucille Roybal-Allard have turned their liberal Democratic dogma into action, winning legislative victories for their central Los Angeles districts.
But since Republicans trounced Democrats in November, ending a 40-year Democratic domination of the House, the clout that the threesome of lawmakers sought to translate into services and funding for their respective districts will be dust in the wind when the new Congress convenes Wednesday.
“We have lost our power base within the House of Representatives,” said Dixon, who has been a prominent player in Congress’ once-dominant political party.
The GOP control of both houses of Congress means that many of the causes the lawmakers focused on--U.S. foreign policy in Africa and Haiti, Metro Rail construction, rights and benefits for the poor and immigrants--will drop in priority with conservatives heading committees.
“We have to be the loyal opposition and try to block much of the (Republican) ‘Contract with America,’ ” Dixon said. “It’s not going to be easy.”
The 10-point conservative agenda, outlined by House Speaker-designate Newt Gingrich of Georgia, would deal a sobering blow to Los Angeles’ inner city if its calls for cutbacks in job training, school lunches and subsidized health care are enacted. And the sweeping reform of the welfare system proposed in the contract would directly affect many of those represented by Dixon, Waters and Roybal-Allard.
The three already have felt the sting of the Republican regime with the GOP leaders’ decision in December to eliminate the 28 legislative service organizations, which include the Black, Latino, Asian and women’s congressional caucuses. These groups provided research and information to their members and served as forums for honing their legislative programs.
Under the new rules, the caucuses can continue to operate as member organizations, but their staffs can no longer be funded out of congressional office accounts.
Roybal-Allard said the move to eliminate the direct congressional funding of the caucuses was a Republican attempt to “erode advances won on behalf of women, minorities and children in the past 30 years.”
Waters, however, said lawmakers should not be deterred by the GOP move. “If we can get out to raise money for our campaigns, we ought to be able to raise money to run a black caucus,” she said. And that’s what I think we ought to do.”
Since Dixon, Waters and Roybal-Allard--each of whom served in the California Legislature before going to Congress--have never operated in a minority party, the change will tax their political acumen, pundits say.
“I think the people who are going to be successful from California are legislators who are skillful at making compromises,” said Larry Berg, political science professor at USC.
Said Frank Gilliam, a UCLA political science professor: “They will survive. Whether they will be able to bring home the bacon the way they used to is another story.”
The three legislators each have a different take on how things will change for themselves and their party once Congress reconvenes in January.
They agree that loss of power will jeopardize their legislative proposals and possibly some programs already in place. They also concur that Democrats must unify and organize over the next two years to recapture some of the seats they lost, while illuminating Republicans’ shortcomings. But there is no consensus on where Democrats should move politically, how President Clinton should handle the next two years, or how to negotiate with Republicans.
“There’s going to be a bit of a difference on how (the new Congress) affects them on an individual basis,” Berg said.
For instance, he predicts a successful transition for Dixon, given the past skills he has shown as a negotiator. But noting Waters’ reputation as a firebrand, Berg says: “Her temperament could hurt her.”
Whether in Sacramento or Washington, Waters, 56, has moved legislation and bent bureaucracy with an impassioned voice and in-your-face demeanor.
When asked about the GOP taking command of the House and Senate, the tenacious daughter of a welfare mother, who entered politics more than 20 years ago, is true to form: brassy, irrepressible, confident.
“My power is not given to me by a speaker, a majority leader, a Republican or Democrat,” Waters said, attitude dripping from every word. “My power belongs to me because I decided to take it and use it.”
Waters, who after 14 years in the state Assembly won her House seat in 1990, said she has no intention of turning silent or drastically changing her positions because of the Republican ascendancy.
“All I know is this: I’m not going to move to the right; I’m not moving to the center,” she said. “I’m going to continue to fight for the issues I care about. I will negotiate. I will legislate. I may win some, I may lose them all.”
If Waters fears that any of the programs or policies she’s sponsored are in jeopardy--job training for youth, gang-prevention programs, economic development for South-Central and Inglewood--she’s not saying.
“As long as they don’t know where (the specific programs) are, I’m not going to put it in the paper. I’m gonna let them find them,” she said.
She also rebuts skepticism that foreign issues dear to her--such as a continued U. S. pressure in support of reforms in Haiti and South Africa--will get little recognition now.
She noted that when she successfully pushed for divestment of the state’s investments in South Africa to protest that country’s apartheid policies, the governor’s chair was occupied by conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. “He wasn’t supposed to sign that. You just work from your beliefs and things happen,” she said.
Waters acknowledges that getting Republicans to meet halfway on the issues that most concern her won’t be easy. “I never really expect very much from Republicans in general and I expect even less when the right-wingers are in charge,” she said.
Waters argues that although not a single Republican incumbent lost in the November elections, voters were anti-incumbent, not anti-Democrat. The problem with most Democratic politicians, though, is that they’re disconnected, she said.
“They operate in a vacuum, within the walls of Washington, fighting about things that people don’t give a darn about,” she said. “I think elected officials have to get out of Washington, spend time in their districts, really understand their constituents.”
For Democrats to rebound, she contended, they must better organize and energize their base. Within urban areas, for instance, this means concentrating on community activist groups and the recipients of such federally funded programs as Head Start.
In Waters’ own district, which encompasses Hawthorne, Inglewood, Gardena and parts of South-Central and is composed largely of low-income neighborhoods, turnout in November was a dismal 30%. But the GOP goal to slash welfare will rally her constituents, she said.
“If they cut welfare in the way they’re talking about cutting it, you will see thousands of people on the street . . . involved in the political process, in trying to do something about the fact that they have been harmed in some way,” she said.
Turning to President Clinton, Waters argued against the centrist strategy that he so far seems to have adopted in the wake of the ’94 campaign.
“I think that Clinton should not try to out-Republican the Republicans,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of room to play for the President on sound, sensible issues that will resonate out there.
“I think we can organize and that President Clinton can be a good Democratic President, not have to move to the right, and propose good, sound legislation that will be embraced by Democrats and Republicans out there,” Waters said. “I really believe that.”
The 60-year-old Dixon, in contrast, believes the best move at the moment for liberal and moderate Democrats is to head to the center and support a common agenda.
“We (Democrats) are in a dilemma, because at one extreme we have liberals in our caucus and conservatives in our caucus. That tears us apart,” he said.
Democrats, he added, need to learn what Republicans have mastered in their 40 years in the minority: Unify, define yourselves and keep the public’s eyes glued to the opposition’s every gaffe.
A valid criticism of his party’s performance leading up to the ’94 vote “is that Republicans did a better job of defining Democrats as evil than we did of defining ourselves,” he said.
“After 40 years, the public said they wanted to try a more conservative movement. That to me is interpreted as ‘We want a different course taken.’ ”
Elected to Congress in 1978 and currently representing a district that stretches from Baldwin Hills and Culver City to near Los Angeles International Airport, Dixon has quietly wielded considerable power inside the Capitol. As chairman of a subcommittee to the Appropriations Committee, he was a member of the House’s “College of Cardinals,” according to the American Almanac of Politics.
His influence allowed him to play a key role in the passage of an emergency bill to assist Los Angeles after the 1992 riots. He also has helped sustain funding for the city’s Metro Rail, of which Dixon is a leading proponent. In 1993, for instance, he was instrumental in obtaining $163 million for Metro Rail routes extending to Mid-City, East Los Angeles and North Hollywood.
Overall, the estimated costs of the East Los Angeles and Mid-City legs are $684.4 million and $574.7 million, respectively, with construction scheduled for completion by the year 2000. But the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, recently termed Dixon’s Metro Rail project “pork,” meaning it could be targeted as Republicans look to slash federal spending.
“I will have to work very hard, intimidate and do whatever is necessary to make sure that Metro Rail gets funding,” Dixon said. “Rapid transit for minorities is a very important issue.”
Dixon also successfully pushed for $10 million to be transferred from defense conversion projects to the cash-strapped Los Angeles school system to teach engineering, science and computers in largely minority schools over a three-year period.
Political pundits say Dixon’s low-key style and conciliatory talents will help him push legislation that may be initially unpopular to the Republican majority.
“The key to (the House’s changed political equation) is having some flexibility,” he said. “You don’t garner consensus by a very dogmatic approach, you alienate people. Compromise is what keeps government functioning.”
When she was elected to Congress in 1992, Roybal-Allard set her sights on aggressively promoting the interests of her district, which encompasses East Los Angeles, part of Downtown and the Southeast cities.
She immediately started developing a two-year plan for programs to help her constituents and pushed for key Cabinet members to visit the area.
But the surprise Republican stampede quite possibly trampled her agenda.
“In the past, there have been some Republicans we’ve been able to work with and get agreement, but so far I don’t see that happening right now,” she said.
One direct result of the increased number of House Republicans is that Roybal-Allard lost her seat on the Small Business Committee. But she retained her post on the more powerful Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and hopes to push for economic development programs there.
Roybal-Allard’s political history dates back to years of watching the political machinations of her father, the legendary Edward Roybal, who retired in 1992 after 30 years of representing much of East Los Angeles in Congress. No sooner had Roybal retired than his daughter staked her claim to a House seat. Roybal-Allard, 53, swept to victory in 1992 and again in November, when she captured 81% of the vote.
In the House, one of her objectives has been garnering funding for information workshops for constituents. Topics have included obtaining citizenship, managing personal finances and small business assistance. She also worked to get funding for the $1.3-billion rail-and-truck Alameda transportation corridor.
But those projects are not likely priorities with Republicans.
And Roybal-Allard concedes that her plan to reintroduce the issue of the tobacco industry targeting women and minorities probably won’t get far with Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) heading the subcommittee on health and the environment. Bliley hails from one of the nation’s major tobacco-growing areas.
Discussing the GOP agenda in general, she said: “I’m hoping it’s just rhetoric and (Republicans) will back off once they understand what a devastating impact they’re going to have on people’s lives.”
One facet that works in Roybal-Allard’s favor is that more financial institutions are realizing it’s good business to invest in areas like those she represents: largely Latino, with burgeoning, enterprising cities such as Bell Gardens and Huntington Park.
Roybal-Allard says Democrats have a simple role: to keep the public apprised of everything the Republicans do and make sure nothing is done behind closed doors.
The harder job for House Democrats will be pulling together and creating a more disciplined caucus after 40 years of operating at diverse and disparate levels.
“It’s going to be like trying to discipline a spoiled child,” Roybal-Allard said. “There’s going to be a lot of tantrums. But we’re going to have to pull together as a team, which we’ve never been able to do in the past.”
The Lawmakers at a GlanceJULIAN DIXON
* Party: Democrat
* Age: 60
* District: 32nd--Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, part of South-Central Los Angeles, Culver City, Palms, Mar Vista.
* District demographics: Pop. 1990: 572,630; 24% white; 40% black; 8% Asian; 30% Latino. Households: 38% married; 18% married with children; 50% college educated. Median household income: $28,332. Per capita income: $14,520. Median gross rent: $592. Median house value: $231,400.
* Committees: Appropriations: Defense; District of Columbia (chairman); Military construction. Intelligence: Program and Budget Authorization.
* Career: Army, 1957-60. Practicing attorney, 1960-73. California Assembly, 1972-78. Elected to Congress, 1978. Dixon had his biggest moment in the national spotlight in 1989, when as chairman of the House Ethics Committee he had to pass judgment on Speaker Jim Wright, who was ultimately forced to resign. LUCILLE ROYBAL-ALLARD
* Party: Democrat
* Age: 53
* District: 33rd--Bell, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Cudahy, South Gate, Huntington Park, Maywood, Vernon, Florence, Walnut Park and parts of Downey, Los Angeles and East Los Angeles.
* District demographics: Pop. 1990: 570,893; 8% white; 4% black; 1% Native American; 4% Asian; 83% Latino. Households: 49% married; 34% married with children; 17% college educated. Median household income: $20,708. Per capita income: $6,997. Median gross rent: $484. Median house value: $154,400.
* Committees: Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs : Consumer Credit and Insurance; Housing and Community Development. Small Business: Minority Enterprise, Finance and Urban Development; Small Business Administration Legislation and the General Economy.
* Career: Second-generation Latina politician. Daughter of one of the most powerful Latino politicians, Edward Roybal. California Assembly, 1987-92. Elected to Congress in 1992. MAXINE WATERS
* Party: Democrat
* Age: 56
* District: 35th--South-Central, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood.
* District demographics: Pop. 1990: 570,697; 10% white; 43% black; 6% Asian; 42% Latino. Households: 42% married; 25% married with children; 35% college educated. Median household income: $25,481. Per capita income: $9,761. Median gross rent: $573. Median house value: $148,700.
* Committees: Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs: Consumer Credit and Insurance; Financial Institution Supervision; Regulation and Deposit Insurance; Housing and Community Development; International Development, Finance, Trade and Monetary Policy. Small Business . Veterans’ Affairs: Oversight and Investigations.
* Career: Worked for Head Start in 1966. Served as chief deputy for City Councilman David S. Cunningham 1973-76. California Assembly 1976-90. Elected to Congress 1990. Considered the nation’s most influential black female elected official.
Percentages are rounded off. Figures may add up to more than 100%. Source: Almanac of American Politics