(The Root) — Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio took the chairperson's gavel from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver at a recent ceremonial swearing-in for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. With it, she inherited the responsibility to lead the group of African-American elected officials that has long considered itself the "conscience of the Congress" on issues that transcend race.
That's right — the black legislators, many of whom represent diverse districts, are more concerned with the well-being of children, the disabled and anyone who is struggling economically than the public understands. "People mistakenly believe we only represent minorities," Fudge told The Root.
In her remarks about her plans for the group's priorities during President Obama's second term, she said, "The imperative is to define what is right and then do it." That, she explained when we spoke to her after the ceremony, means advocating for legislation that protects all of America's most vulnerable citizens.
We asked the new chair about the issues she'd like for the Caucus to work on with President Obama — from gun control to fiscal issues — her take on Tim Scott's failure to join the group and the advice she'd give to black leaders who are just embarking upon their work to change the country from the halls of Congress.
The Root: What are your predictions for the new Congressional Black Caucus' relationship with the president? What are your hopes?
Marcia Fudge: We hope to work with him on a lot of things, especially jobs. Clearly, there continues to be a jobs issue in this country, not just in CBC communities, but in most communities. We also want to work on all of the fiscal issues as we talk about how we find a way to reduce our debt. It is important that certain communities and certain types of people are protected. Especially the disabled, children, the elderly. We want to be sure that the deal as it comes forward is not one that is going to adversely affect the people that we believe are the most vulnerable people in our society.
I'm not sure what the president's agenda is at this point. I watched an interview in which he talked about immigration reform, which we are very supportive of. He's talked about gun control — and clearly, in many of our communities, we do have a culture of violence that we need to address at some point. There are several other issues as well. But we are supportive of the president and look forward to a good working relationship.
TR: One of the themes that arose at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's ceremonial swearing-in for the CBC was that the group serves as the self-proclaimed "conscience of the Congress." Do you think most people understand that you don't only act on behalf of African Americans?
MF: I think that people mistakenly believe that we only represent minorities, which in fact is not true. We represent tens of millions of people. There are 42 members of the Caucus, and I would say the majority of us really do not have solidly minority districts. My own district, for example, is about 50 percent minorities. We have some members whose districts have minorities who are 14 or 17 or 20 percent. So, it's really incorrect for people to assume that we only represent black people.
What most of us do have in common is that we represent urban areas. When you look at our urban areas you find that there are high incidences of poverty, our schools are in great need of some type of reform and we have people who find themselves in situations where government assistance is very much needed. That's all people. Poor people, other minorities and just Americans across the board. I do want people to understand that.
TR: Given that focus, what do you make of Sen. Tim Scott's decision not to join the CBC because, as he put it, "my campaign was never about race"?
MF: I really don't make anything of it. Tim Scott did not join when he was a member of the House. I think that's his personal choice, and I certainly respect his choice.
TR: What advice have you received about your new post, and what advice would you give to incoming CBC members?
MF: The advice that I would give to incoming CBC members is first to be sure that they are up on the issues, and that they take the time to not only learn what is going on legislatively, but to learn rules and learn procedures so they can be more effective in their roles as members of the Congress, not just of the CBC. It's a steep learning curve, even for people who have legislative experience.
Second, I'd advise them to never miss an opportunity to spend as much time with their constituents as they possibly can. I think it's important for us not only to hear what our constituents have to say, but just as importantly to let our constituents know what is going on in the House and to make sure they understand that we're fighting to do the things that they sent us here to do.
As far as advice I've received, I've got a lot of people telling me a lot of things, but the most consistent thing is to be a leader and to work within the confines of the Caucus. We have many, many talented people, so it is important that I not try to do it all by myself. There are many people who are experienced and knowledgeable about many things here, and I want to be sure that we are all involved in the process and that we make sure that the people who are best able to lead on particular issues and subjects are the people who do that. It's not only about me being a leader. It's about the CBC leading.
With that, I very much expect that the CBC is going to continue to play a pivotal role in the decisions that are made in this House. We are 42 members strong, we are one of the largest caucuses in the House, we have some of the most seniority in the House and when decisions are made, we want to be at the table.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent.