(The Root) — Next to the Obamas and former President Bill Clinton, there was one other elected official whose speech captivated the crowd at the Democratic National Convention: Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). No one could blame the other speakers for claiming that he had an unfair advantage, though. After all, as a practicing Methodist minister, firing up crowds is something Cleaver does for a living. When he’s not doing that, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus is striving to serve as President Obama’s legislative conscience when it comes to issues affecting black Americans. Many members of his caucus will gather this week in Washington, D.C., to discuss those issues during an annual legislative conference.
Earlier this month in Charlotte, N.C., Cleaver spoke with The Root about why voter-ID laws and the president’s gay marriage stance can hurt him at the polls, and why, nonetheless, black Americans give President Obama a pass that they would not give to a white president.
The Root: A lot of people think that Michelle Obama gave one of the best speeches of the DNC and that you did, too. Why do you think your speech generated so much attention?
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver: I think Mrs. Obama’s speech was so powerful she could have called me down to do the Benediction and we could have ended this convention and gone home, so when I went down to speak I was certainly inspired by her speech. And, frankly, because I have been a minister for so many years there are times I can feel the crowd or the congregation and know what they want and where they want me to take them. And I was fortunate to have the nerve to veer away from the teleprompter.
TR: You’ve mentioned your background as a minister. There are some ministers who met during the Democratic National Convention to express their displeasure on the president’s evolution on gay marriage. Do you have concerns that this reaction will negatively affect the president’s re-election chances?
EC: Well, I could talk about it biblically and theologically, but I will talk about it politically.
Will there be some black voter drop because of the same-sex marriage issue? The answer is, unquestionably, yes. Will it be significant? No. Will black folk vote for the president with some anger toward that position? Yes. But the black voter is growing more sophisticated, in part because the president has been elevated to the highest office on the planet, so more black Americans are paying attention now and in the last four years than in the past. They are sophisticated enough to know that it is not a smart move to reject an individual for public office on one issue, because they would be opposed to Mitt Romney on 313 issues and opposed to Obama on one. So I believe they will come out and vote, and some of them will vote and hold their noses.
TR: As a member of the clergy, were you personally disappointed with his announcement of his evolution on gay marriage?
EC: I wasn’t disappointed, but probably a little frustrated that he went and talked about it because I don’t think he needed to do that, because frankly I don’t think that’s anybody’s business. Because it’s not like he signed a bill into law or changed anything administratively. He just stood and gave his opinion, and that was all.