These aren't exactly salad days for African-American liberals in Congress. The conventional wisdom has it that their time in American
politics has come and gone,
replaced by fights over the very existence of affirmative action, and by a
Democrat in the White House who brags about signing a Republican-authored welfare reform bill.
But you wouldn't have known this in March 1998, when the House Education and Workforce Committee began to vote on the pet project of Philadelphia Democrat Chaka Fattah. Known as the GEAR UP initiative, it would devote $120 million to spread the word to low-income
grade- and high school students about federal college aid money.
The committee's 19 Democrats, of course, backed Fattah's bill solidly.
The Republicans were a different story. Many, led by committee Chairman William Goodling, voted against it -- but there were a handful of notable
exceptions. Like Mark Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana
and member of the legendary GOP class of '94. And Joe Scarborough, a
Floridian, also of the class of '94. And Indiana's
David McIntosh. And Pennsylvania's John Peterson. And Michigan's Fred Upton.
And, at the end of the day, due to the support of these GOP conservatives,
GEAR UP passed.
So, what happened here? The alliance seems odd -- black and white, Democrat and Republican, left and right. But it's indicative of a small, if growing, trend that
exemplifies three new strains in American politics: the
"compassionate conservatism" preached by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the pragmatism of a new generation of
African-American congressmen and the fact that some of the best initiatives to help the poor and rebuild the inner city are coming from community activists who preach a brand of self-help that Republicans can relate to.
Fattah, a minority member of the overwhelmingly Republican class of '94, attributes part of his
willingness to work with conservative Republicans to the fact that as a
12-year state legislator in Harrisburg, he was forced to learn how to
function as a member of the minority party, "unlike some Democrats
here, who have never [previously] experienced being in the minority," he observes. "You have a couple choices. And one of them is trying to get something done."
"Some of it's generational politics," says Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn.,
who just turned 29 last month, and is a member of the class of '96. "A lot
of the new guys associated with the more conservative wing of the
Republican Party bring an approach to governing that's all about what
From the other side of the aisle, Souder sees possibility as well. "There's
a group of young African-American leaders who are willing to work with
Republicans, and focus on economic opportunities, rather than just do finger-pointing," he says.
Ford says the personal relationships he's established with individuals like
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., certainly help. "We're all new members, or
relatively new members," he says, "and some of us are closer in age than we
are with members of our own party. We play basketball every day in the House
gym, and we work out together, so the relationships are there. And while I
certainly wouldn't betray my convictions based on the fact that we lift
weights together, because the relationships are there, there's a willingness
to at least listen."
Souder agrees. "There's a comfort among members that you wouldn't expect
from the news media, which suggests that we're in armed camps with Uzis
pointed at one another."
Ford and his buddy Sanford are friends more than allies; their
relationship has yet to manifest itself in legislation. But Fattah and
Souder found their friendship based in something slightly more substantive
than courtside camaraderie, and it's why GEAR UP is now the law of the land.
When Souder was a staffer for then-Rep. Dan Coates, R-Ind., in the
mid-1980s, he was admonished by the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the
Urban League. "Don't just be a typical white guy who just sits on his duff
and pronounces what's wrong with minorities. Go out there and talk to
them," Souder recalls him saying.
So Souder visited a Philly youth center run by Fattah's parents. "They had
taken a lot of kids in and put them under one roof," Souder says. "It helped
turn their neighborhood around, and they formed a relatively stable model of
what can be done in city programs."
Fast-forward to 1994, when both Souder and Fattah won election to the House
of Representatives -- Souder as one of 73 Republicans, Fattah one of only 14
Democrats. Souder concedes that, in the wake of the GOP Revolution, he
didn't exactly grab Fattah's hand and go running off into the Land of
Bipartisanship. "'94 through '96 wasn't exactly the time of
coalition building," he acknowledges. Those years were only relevant in that
the two men "got to know each other some, and we got along well. We started
looking for opportunities to work together" to build on the middle ground so
evident a decade before when Souder witnessed the success that Fattah's
parents helped create.
Souder wasn't completely new to the idea of working with a member of the
Congressional Black Caucus. Around that same time, he'd been sweating to
develop a social services block grant on charitable giving when Virginia
Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott, first elected in 1992, approached him. Scott
encouraged Souder to modify his bill so it would work well for charitable
giving to low-income urban neighborhoods as well. That was fine with Souder,
who notes that, despite his interest in the issue, "low income neighborhoods
don't have a lot of Republican congressmen," so he was happy for the input.
Political pragmatism was involved in Souder's work with Scott too. "By
getting Bobby, and, of course, Chaka [on board with my amendment], there
really wasn't any aggressive opposition to my amendment," he says. "And once
you begin to build a little level of trust, you're able to break through."
Soon GEAR UP reared its head and Souder and Fattah were able to work
together as well. Then calling the bill "High Hopes" (reportedly changed by
Republicans because it too easily recalled a certain Democratic president's
Sinatra-sung campaign theme song), Fattah thought GEAR UP was the perfect
opportunity to reach across the great partisan divide to Souder. "When there
are opportunities to work together, we try to seek them out," Fattah says.
"Some things are just not political. We don't talk about educating Democrats
or educating Republicans. We're educating children."
His rhetoric was even more fine-tuned when he pitched his GOP friend: Fattah
sold GEAR UP to Souder as an exemplification of Reagan's
pull yourself up by your bootstraps ideals. "If Chaka had come at it in an
aggressively partisan fashion, I don't know that it would have worked,"
Souder says. "But his pitch was geared to appeal to us as conservatives. He
didn't say that these kids needed help because of past discrimination, or
because Republicans have kept them down. He said, 'This is a group of people
who want the opportunity to succeed. This is a Republican idea!' It was such
that it enabled us to make a coalition between neo-liberals and neo-cons.
Because neo-cons are willing to use limited government in order to
eventually liberate people from government altogether."
Most bills are born DOA, and even many of those that get marked-up in committee
die. As Goodling pushed his committee closer to the time to mark up the
higher-ed bill, in the early months of 1998, it became increasingly
important that Souder go from merely co-sponsoring Fattah's bill to
lobbying Goodling to allow it to be heard in full committee.
Souder says Goodling pressured him against supporting GEAR UP. "'You can't
do this,'" Goodling insisted, according to Souder. "'You shouldn't be
delivering votes for the president's No. 1 initiative.'"
"That's a reasonable political argument," Souder says, "but it's not a
Scarborough started hearing about GEAR UP. Knowing that he and Souder were
of similar minds when it came to concern for the poor -- the two had worked
together in naming a Justice Department building after Robert F.
Kennedy -- Scarborough asked Souder to tell him about Fattah's amendment. Soon Scarborough was supporting Fattah's bill, and McIntosh, Upton
and Peterson followed.
"Then Goodling was double-mad at me," Souder says.
Goodling's anger subsided soon enough; both Fattah and Souder point out that
no one should be under the impression that their work on GEAR UP is the new
standard for legislating.
"The reality is, 90 percent of the time on issues we're going to have
disagreements and come from very different perspectives," Fattah says. "I
have one of the most partisan voting records in the House, I've been an
outspoken critic of the Republican majority, and one of the most ardent
defenders of the Clinton administration" during the whole Lewinsky mess.
Indeed, after GEAR UP passed the Senate, and Souder was attending the White House ceremony at which President Clinton
signed the Education Reauthorization Act into law -- at the time of
impeachment's fever pitch, in October 1998 -- the Republican's top goal was to
stay out of any photographs with the president.
But Clinton approached Souder and thanked him, noting that it took courage
for him to attend. "Then Chaka pops up, and says, 'Mark was the key vote,'"
Souder says, laughing. Clinton started riffing on education and "Chaka
started calling photographers over."
There are other noteworthy examples of left-right cooperation in the often polarized House. In 1996, for
instance, the civil rights interests of North Carolina liberal Democrat Rep.
Mel Watt coincided with the libertarian views of Idaho's far-right
Republican Rep. Helen Chenoweth, and the Chenoweth-Watt amendment on habeus
corpus protections was born. But Watt warns against reading too much into their cooperation. "I
remember people saying it was strange," Watt recalls, "but to say that it
was some sort of coalition building with the class of '94 would be an
overstatement. I don't even know what class she belongs to."
Souder hopes that reaching out to Fattah -- and into urban areas
-- becomes the necessary next step in the Republican
Revolution, what all-but-anointed GOP nominee Bush has been
calling compassionate conservatism. "I hope it will be a pattern over time,"
Souder says. "If the Republican Party doesn't move on it, the Republican
Party will go the way of the dinosaur. We need to work out creative ways to
work with blacks and Hispanics. We increasingly seem like an isolated party.
So [GEAR UP] is definitely something to build on. But I don't want to
overestimate it." On whether this will be a paradigm for the future
of the GOP, Souder says, "School's still out."