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In an exclusive interview with New America Media Associate Editor and Huffington Post contributor Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Congressional Black Caucus Chairperson Barbarba Lee discusses the election, the GOP takeover, working with the GOP and Tea Party influenced House members, and the role of the Congressional Black Caucus. The interview was a New America Media production.
EOH: Was there any silver lining for the Democrats in the GOP and Tea Party Congressional surge?
Barbara Lee: The public did not reject the Democrats. This was a referendum in part for change and in part out of anger and frustration over the economy and the job situation. This is understandable. But there was also a cynical effort at work. Every effort the Congressional Black Caucus and House Democrats put forth to create jobs, maintain unemployment benefits, and shore up the economy the Republicans voted against it. The played on people’s anger and vulnerability to torpedo the efforts Democrats made while doing nothing the past two years to help turn things around. When we passed the economic recovery package under Bush that still wasn’t enough, but we were the ones not the Republicans that made the effort to stimulate the economy.
EOH: That message did not come through loud enough during the election.
BL: But we should never forget that it was GOP policies that got us here in the first place. The next two years the public will see how the GOP is fighting for the wealthy, for tax cuts to benefit the rich. They’ve already made it clear that’s their agenda. But I believe that the public wants us to preserve, not privatize, Medicare, Social Security, and not make harmful spending cuts. These are the initiatives that the Tea Party wants to do.
EOH: What are the top priorities of the Congressional Black Caucus?
BL: Jobs, jobs, jobs. This has been our priority for some time. Unemployment among blacks and Latinos is in some places double that of the national average. I worked to pass the youth employment program and most Democrats supported it. It passed twice with no GOP votes, and died in the Senate.
When you look at the poverty, inequality, and wealth gap in the country and how so many African-American families are losing what little wealth that they’ve built up over the years as a result of the jobs and home foreclosure crisis, we’ve got to make sure that our community that are suffering the most from the economic hard times gets its share of jobs, green industry job creation, and program funding support.
EOH: Did Congress do enough though to combat the crisis?
BL: In some ways we didn’t move fast and far enough. The stimulus recovery package should have been $1 trillion but we couldn’t get the GOP even to agree to the $780 billion allocated. People must not be confused who their friends are and the record shows that every effort the president and the Democrats put forth to work with Republicans on job creation, to help small business, to expand tax credits, and infrastructure development the GOP voted against.
EOH: The major criticism is that the president and Democrats did not sell their message to voters on the positive accomplishments that the party made or tried to make.
BL: It was very difficult selling our message. When you have the major news outlets and commentators promoting right-wing policies, and that dominate the airwaves, it’s even harder to get a positive message out. Then there was money. The Supreme Court ruling that corporations could spend unlimited amounts on elections without full disclosure was a shame and disgrace but it’s also tough to overcome.
EOH: But it still came down to getting or failure to get an effective message out, and how to do that.
BL: We’re going to have to develop our own ways of communicating the truth to the America people that means grassroots organizing, townhalls, and using social media networks. We’re going to have be 21st Century communicators to turn it around and to hit each and every front simultaneously. Because the fact is that money now rules in campaigns and those with money can distort the facts, tell lies, and it’s hard to get a consistent platform to refute them.
EOH: The GOP majority with strong Tea Party influence is a fact of life in Congress. How will the CBC deal with them?
BL: The CBC has been in the minority all of its life in Congress. We know what fighting is and we know what working together is. We would not have made the gains that we’ve made if we hadn’t worked in coalition with people of different faiths, beliefs, backgrounds, interests, perspectives and parties. We know when to compromise. For instance, legislation I pushed through on Global HIV/AIDS programs, President Bush signed into law. I had to have Republican support for it. We were then in the minority on this issue. But this was a moment that Bush and I and the CBC could find common ground.
But when it came to privatizing Social Security we fought tooth and nail against it. The CBC knows work on initiatives for the common good. But they also know that when there’s a Tea Party or GOP effort to destroy the American Dream that the CBC will be very critical of it and will fight hard. There will be a time for battles and a time for negotiation to move our agenda forward.
EOH: Is there a final message on the election?
BL: Yes, organize, organize, organize. The movement that brought in President Obama can’t fall asleep. It has to refocus and continue on.