Elongated Thoughts: The importance of voting was a running theme at the conference.
(The Root) -- My second time at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference was interesting, to say the least. Last year I attended as a newbie. My expectations were all based on what I had heard about the ALC, which is better known as CBC Week. I had jokingly referred to it as "political black freaknik" because of the overwhelming emphasis that many place on the parties and after-parties. However, after attending and working with the organization, my tone soon changed.
This isn't to say that the ALC isn't full of parties. There are parties on top of parties inside of parties. But what's really interesting is the number of panels and discussions that occur when the partying stops. Discussions range from voter suppression to the state of black America as a whole. You see civil rights leaders walking through the exhibit hall, black and white politicians actively showing their faces -- making sure people know that they were there and they weighed in on the topics that are close to black America's heart.
This year I was fortunate to attend the closing event, the Phoenix Awards, where first lady Michelle Obama was lavished with applause and adulation as she delivered a hard-hitting speech with an emphasis on the importance of voting. I also got the opportunity to sit down briefly with a living civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who also trumpeted the need for voting with the passion of a much younger man. Everywhere I turned in this crucial election year, the urgency of voting was being hammered over and over again. And I'll be honest with you: When John Lewis, a man who was beaten on Bloody Sunday in 1965, tells you that voting is important, you hear those words in your soul. History doesn't often stare into your eyes, but when it does, you have no choice but to listen.
This isn't to say that I don't have critiques of the ALC. I hope that as time goes on, they reach out to different segments of the black community that don't normally gravitate to such events. I would love to see more of a push to get their messages, which they are spending so much time on, out to more people through social media.
There are various ways in which the overall event can improve and be more inclusive, but this doesn't negate the positives that come along with it. Having the opportunity to deal directly with many of the leaders within black America is something I don't think anyone who cares about our future should miss.
On the opening night of the Annual Legislative Conference, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), with the managing editor of The Root, Sheryl Huggins Salomon.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) at the Phoenix Awards.
Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Assistant Treasurer of the CBCF Kimberly Woodard share a laugh at the Phoenix Awards.
Michael Eric Dyson and the Rev. Al Sharpton spoke only for a few minutes, but it was obviously about something very interesting at the Phoenix Awards.
Civil rights icon John Lewis immediately after an interview with This Week in Blackness radio.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell cracks up at some commentary by a fan who just bought his book at the author pavilion at the ALC.
The Chairman's Reception was made complete with a performance by the Stylistics.
Two civil rights icons share a serious moment at the Phoenix Awards.
Sharpton and first lady Michelle Obama share a few words directly after her speech at the Phoenix Awards.
Elon James White is a writer and satirist and host of the award-winning video and radio series This Week in Blackness. Listen Monday to Thursday at TWIB.FM and watch at TV.TWIB.ME. Subscribe on iTunes. Follow Elon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.
Blogging the Beltway: A summit empowers black clergy with tools to tackle restrictive voting laws.
(The Root) -- "Our duty today," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, before a crowd of African-American clergy members, "is to remember that the Bible tell us: 'For lack of knowledge, the people perish.' "
With this guiding mantra, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches joined forces on Wednesday for their inaugural Faith Leaders Summit on Voting Rights. The Washington, D.C., forum, attended by members of Congress and about 200 leaders from black churches across the country, was designed to inform attendees about restrictive state-level voting laws passed around the country and to empower them to share with their home congregations information about surmounting subsequent voting obstacles.
The event's first panel summarized various laws that have passed around the nation from 2010 to 2012, including measures that do the following:
* Require people to present a birth certificate, or other proof of U.S. citizenship, in order to register to vote
* Require non-expired, state-issued photo identification in order to register and/or vote
* Eliminate same-day voter registration
* Levy stringent guidelines and penalties on third-party voter-registration drives
* Reduce or eliminate early voting periods (including the Sunday before elections, which counted for 32 percent of the African-American voter turnout in Florida in 2008)
* Bar people with criminal convictions from restoring their voting rights after they've paid their debts to society
"The majority of states where these laws have passed are the states that make up 60 to 75 percent of the electoral votes that will be required to elect our next president," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. "And who doesn't have state-issued photo ID? Eleven percent of all Americans lack photo ID. Eighteen percent of Americans over the age of 65 lack photo ID, and 25 percent of African Americans lack photo ID."
Thirty-four percent of women, largely because they changed their names after getting married, lack proof of citizenship with their current legal name. In many instances, even students who attend state colleges are prohibited from using their student ID to vote, or register to vote.
Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, is leading litigation against photo-ID laws in several states, including Wisconsin, where 78 percent of African-American men between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have state-issued photo ID, and in Texas, where 600,000 already-registered voters also lack the identification. "These are people who have been voting, but the rules have been changed right before we're getting to the finish line," she said.
"You do not need a state-issued photo ID with your current address on it, that's unexpired, to get on a plane -- and by the way, getting on a plane is not a right," Browne-Dianis continued, countering claims made by advocates of strict photo-ID laws. "You don't need it to buy Sudafed. Don't listen to the rhetoric surrounding these laws."
Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee Voting Rights Project, argued that the rationale provided for these laws -- protecting against in-person voter fraud -- is a smokescreen for limiting voter participation. "Yes, there have been mistakes people have made in trying to vote, but there is nothing within our democracy that threatens us to the extent that we need to take away the right to vote from millions of voters," she said, adding that numerous studies and investigations (pdf) have produced no evidence of people impersonating other voters or using fraudulent names at the polls.
Another component at play is that many voters are unaware that these laws are being passed. "There are a lot of people who went to the polls in 2008 and 2010 who don't know that when they go to the polls in 2012, they may need an ID that they weren't aware they needed to have," said Johnson-Blanco.
"They may find out that they have been removed from the polls because states like Florida now have a purging regime where, using faulty databases, they have mailed notices to thousands of voters saying, 'You are a noncitizen and not eligible to vote. If you believe we're wrong, come to a hearing and bring proof.' This is what we're dealing with right now in our democracy."
The Action Steps
The summit panel's attorneys issued booklets detailing the new state laws, invited church leaders to join the Advancement Project email list for regular reminders of deadlines and other voting information, and encouraged church leaders to make use of 866-OUR-VOTE, a national voter-protection hotline that will be staffed with live workers starting on June 4. "Whenever somebody comes to you and says you can't vote, that's the line you call," said Arnwine. "When people come to you and say you're not registered, that's the line you call. That's the hotline that's your lifeline."
The panel also advised the summit to get their congregants registered, start "Get ID" programs at their churches (packets on how to administer such a program were distributed) and ask their congregants to become poll workers.
"When they came up with this, they counted on people being indifferent, they counted on people not knowing, they counted on people being so into themselves that they would not even pay attention," said Arnwine. "They counted on these [civil rights] groups being too under-resourced, underfunded and stretched so thin on everything else that they're trying to do. The one thing they didn't count on is us."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.
Blogging the Beltway: As Obama lauds the tax-cut extension, some black lawmakers say it came at a terrible cost.
When Congress voted last Friday to extend the payroll-tax cut and unemployment insurance for the rest of the year, it was seen as a win for President Obama. The measure, which passed along bipartisan lines, involved little of the congressional squabbling that normally arises around his agenda. Likely to avoid the appearance of voting against an extra $40 per paycheck for the average working American, Republicans retreated on this particular fight. And at a White House event on Tuesday, President Obama took a victory lap.
Flanked by Americans who answered the president's call to let Congress know what $40 a paycheck means to them, he thanked the public for the extended tax cut and unemployment benefits. "This got done because of you; because you called, you emailed, you tweeted your representatives and you demanded action," Obama said. "And because you did, no working American is going to see their taxes go up this year ... Because of what you did, millions of Americans who are out there still looking for work are going to continue to get help with unemployment insurance."
During his remarks, President Obama briefly noted that both sides of the aisle made compromises in order to pass the bill. But some of those compromises -- cutting the maximum length for unemployment insurance from 99 to 73 weeks, requiring new federal workers to contribute more to their retirement, cutting the Affordable Care Act by more than $11 billion and allowing states to drug-test people applying for unemployment insurance -- drove 41 House Democrats to vote against the bill.
"Time and time again, the Republican leadership has asked a single group of Americans to bear the burden of reducing the deficit," said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who voted against the bill, along with 13 other CBC members. "Federal employees have already sacrificed $60 billion through pay freezes, toward reducing our deficit. This is a clear assault on our public servants."
In her explanation for her "nay" vote, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said, "This bill makes significant cuts to struggling families. Instead of scaling back unemployment benefits, we need to be adding weeks to help people get by when there continues to be four workers in line for each job."
Adding to the chorus of opposition was Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who said, "I do not want to endorse the idea that it is OK to take from some middle-class workers to meet our obligations to others, while asking nothing from Wall Street bankers and the super rich."
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) added, "It undermines the federal government's ability to recruit and hire a talented workforce, makes unemployment benefits harder to extend for the millions of Americans who rely on them during difficult economic times and brings us no closer to a responsible approach to deficit reduction."
Most of the CBC members who voted against Friday's legislation stressed that it was a difficult choice. After all, the primary provisions of extending the payroll-tax cuts and unemployment benefits, as well as preventing cuts in Medicare-reimbursement rates to doctors, were measures that they supported. But the costs to get there, they say, were too much.
What do you think of the final deal?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Blogging the Beltway: These candidates are key to the Democratic strategy of winning the House in 2012.
With all the focus on the presidential election, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that this is an election year for members of Congress, too. And the congressional contest is no mere side attraction -- the political steam of whoever is in the White House all comes down to which party holds the reins of the legislative branch.
In a drive to help Democrats win a majority in the House of Representatives, this week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced the first wave of candidates to whom they're offering financial, grassroots and strategic support. The effort is packaged under DCCC's "Red to Blue" program, which deploys resources to candidates who have surpassed competitive organizing and infrastructure benchmarks set by the committee.
Among the program's first 36 names are two African-American candidates in key battleground states: Val Demings of Florida and Nevada's Steve Horsford. The organization has identified two other notable African-American candidates, Ohio's Joyce Beatty and Marc Veasey of Texas, as up-and-comers running competitive campaigns that it is keeping an eye on.
The DCCC's effort to groom black candidates is somewhat of a shift for the fundraising organization for House Democrats, which has been criticized for not taking black candidates, or existing African-American lawmakers, seriously. Grievances from the Congressional Black Caucus have included a scarcity of black recruits, and insufficient support for black lawmakers in elections.
Those tensions came to a head last spring after a meeting between DCCC Chairman Steve Israel and the CBC, when Israel bluntly told them: "Can we win the House without the CBC? Yes. Do we want to win the House without the CBC? No."
These days, the DCCC strategy to win control of the House absolutely includes electing more African-American candidates. Here's a peek at the new recruits:
Val Demings, Florida
The first woman ever to serve as police chief in Orlando, Demings served in the city's police department for 27 years before setting her sights on national politics. Holding a B.S. in criminology from Florida State University and a master's degree in public administration from Webster University, she spent her early career as a social worker focused on foster care.
Steve Horsford, Nevada
A member of the Nevada State Senate since 2004, Horsford currently serves as the state's youngest, and first African-American, majority leader. There, he has introduced and passed legislation to increase renewable-energy technology and a recent education reform bill that aims to hold teachers more accountable, partially by putting those with two years of negative evaluations on probationary status.
The DCCC also has new polling trends to give them confidence: A Reuters/Ispos poll last week showed that voters would support a Democratic candidate in their district over a Republican by four points.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.
Beverly Bond says our girls' confidence is nice but not enough.
The simplest ideas are often the ones that catch on. That has certainly been the case for Beverly Bond, the DJ and founder of Black Girls Rock! -- a movement that was first conceived as a T-shirt slogan.
Since 2006 Bond has headed her New York City-based arts and mentoring program, designed to develop girls into future leaders. In 2010 she partnered with BET for the Black Girls Rock! Awards show, honoring exceptional women at the top of their games. The special's second edition airs on BET Nov. 6.
For this week's Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference, Bond brought the movement to D.C. On Thursday she appeared on the panel "African American Girls: Leadership and Resilience," sponsored by the Girl Scouts of USA and BET, and hosted the Black Girls Rock! & Soul Tour, presented by Chevy, featuring singer Melanie Fiona and DJ Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa.
The Root caught up with Bond (on Twitter @beverlybond) about the impact her organization is having, partnering with BET and why we shouldn't get overly excited about reports on the confidence of African-American girls.
The Root: In terms of starting Black Girls Rock! was there a tipping point, or state of affairs, that made you think, "We need this"?
Beverly Bond: There were a number of tipping points. The conversation was going on for a long time among women. We were all talking about the images that we were seeing of ourselves -- from being scantily clad vixens as roles in music videos to the degrading lyrical content of a lot of songs -- and barely seeing our image anywhere else. It was just insult on top of insult.
I thought, "How tragic that this is how they tell our story." I also thought, "We as grown women are able to navigate through this and say that we know who we are. But how do our girls see this, and how do our boys see our girls because of this messaging?" All of those things were heavily on my mind.
When I decided to do Black Girls Rock! I initially thought it would be a cool T-shirt. But I realized it was bigger than a T-shirt. This is an affirmation that our women have not heard ever, and that our girls need to hear coming up. From there came the idea of a mentoring program for young girls, to give them some direction and let them know how special they are.
I thought it was going to change the game -- not even knowing how big it was really going to get. But in my mind I thought it would be their sense of what's cool. Being at the top of your game -- that's cool. That's what makes you hot.
TR: The panel you're speaking on is based on a recent Girl Scout Research Institute study that found that black and Latina girls aspired to leadership roles more often than white girls, and actually rated themselves higher in overall confidence. What do you think of these findings?
BB: I think it's fortunate that a lot of African Americans do aspire to lead because they're often affirmed by their parents, black mamas and other stakeholders in the community. Sometimes that confidence also needs the tools to make their goals come into fruition. Even though our girls are confident, we have to look at whether their aspirations are being realized.
We have to look at the numbers in education, where we see that African-American girls' graduation rate is lower than that of other girls. We have to look at the health disparities. We have to look at what's happening in leadership roles in corporate America, where only 5.3 percent of all management professionals are African-American women. Where is that disconnect happening? How are our girls being led astray?
It's a plus for them to start with such confidence and to have stakeholders in their lives that make them feel that. But I think we need to give our kids the tools to make measurable progress in reasonable time so that they become more valuable citizens and future leaders.
TR: How has your mentoring program made that difference?
BB: I see them understanding the importance of work ethic. In our DJ workshop, they come in just thinking it's a cool thing, but then they see the practice that goes into it, and how that ties into the conversations we have about integrity and high standards and working hard. I watch them get better.
I have one girl -- she's a brilliant child who hadn't been challenged. She wasn't coming to DJ class, and all the girls thatstarted with her had moved on to the advanced class. She went to the advanced class with them, and the instructor told me that some of them couldn't drop it on the one, which is a very basic DJ move. I said that anyone who couldn't do that yet shouldn't be in the class, and it's better to learn your craft and go back.
She admitted that it was her, took herself out of that classroom and said that she couldn't be in there because she wasn't ready yet. I was so proud of her for that, for not wanting to hang out and skip the steps, but wanting to be great at what she does.
TR: Next month you're taping the second annual Black Girls Rock! Awards show, following the huge ratings success of last year's special. When you first started talking with BET, was it a challenge at all to get them onboard with your particular vision?
BB: We'd been in talks with BET since 2007. Stephen Hill [president of programming, music and specials] had been coming to our awards shows before they were televised, so it was clear that I had a vision that wasn't to be compromised. I understood that I was going into an entertainment entity and that they have needs to make their things pop. But they understood that we had integrity and a bar that we weren't going to lower.
I don't think everybody there knew what the brand is, and that we lived outside of the TV show, so there was definitely some educating people. I also don't think they predicted those numbers for the first year. It took a minute, but it's OK. Because now they get it.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.