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CBC’s Watt Reaches Out

Chairman Appeals to Both Parties

After just five weeks on the job, the new chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus is intent on breaking down walls and proving that minority issues aren’t the concern of just one party.

As leader of the CBC, Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) doesn’t want to see the group’s issues become mired in partisanship and gain only the ear of traditionally sympathetic Democrats. Watt, an attorney long known for trying to build consensus, has a different goal for the 43-member black caucus: Promote the group’s agenda with whoever is willing to listen.

“This is not about reaching out or trying to be one thing or another,” Watt said in a recent interview. “I’m trying to advance an agenda.”

The agenda centers around championing initiatives and legislation that close the inequality gap between white and black Americans. Whether it’s jobs, education or health care, Watt said Democrats and Republicans alike must recognize and support policies that ensure everyone is treated fairly and equally.

With a laugh, Watt acknowledged he sounds like a broken record at times, but stressed that all the individual issues for which the CBC advocates fit within the framework of “closing disparities.” He said he might be viewed as “articulating it more aggressively than previous chairs, but it’s not inconsistent with the philosophy of the CBC.”

To advance this broad theme, Watt has already met with President Bush and sought meetings with GOP Congressional leaders including Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.). Likewise, he’s sat down to promote the CBC agenda with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Watt said he’s trying to work within all political circles to “build coalitions and mobilize forces.”

“I’m saying I’m not going to measure you on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican,” Watt said. “I’m going to measure you on your willingness and commitment to closing these disparities.

“It’s not a Democrat or Republican agenda, it’s an American agenda,” he added.

And don’t think for one minute that even though he wants to work with both sides, he won’t call Republicans or Democrats to the carpet if and when they fall short of advancing minority rights, Watt said. He noted that after meeting with Bush late last month, he made it clear that the CBC expected more from the president than lip service.

As evidence of that, Watt slammed Bush’s State of the Union speech for failing to “acknowledge the dramatic extent to which disparities continue to exist in every area of our lives.” He also called Bush’s budget resolution “insulting” to the needs of black Americans and has criticized the president’s Social Security reform plans as likely to increase poverty rates for black Americans.

“I’m not making a conscious effort to change perceptions,” Watt said, acknowledging that all current CBC members are Democrats. “And I’m certainly not trying to change realities.”

In a lot of ways, Watt’s approach fits well with the long-standing motto of an organization: “No permanent enemies, no permanent friends, just permanent interests.”

Watt succeeded Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Jan. 4 and immediately convened a retreat with CBC members to put together their plan for the 109th Congress, hoping to rally support around an agenda for the next two years.

The North Carolina Democrat said beyond achieving results for the CBC on its agenda, he wants to build internal unity among the members to build their influence. He said a key is recognizing that members all have individual goals and they are lawmakers, not just CBC members.

“I’d like us to see us be unified, voting together, messaging together, educating together,” Watt said. “I’m not saying to any member that you must talk about the CBC agenda, solely. But when we’re acting in the interests of the CBC to keep those interests uppermost in their minds.”

Cummings said Watt is not ego-driven, but willing to delegate duties and tap into members’ strengths to best promote CBC issues. He added that Watt is cautious and calm, and viewed within the group as “fair and sensitive to all of our concerns.”

“We know he’s going to do the right thing,” Cummings said.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said Watt has “the right temperament and ability to give us the kind of leadership we need to bring us to a unified position.”

“He has that reach-out quality,” Conyers said. “That’s critical because it would be very easy for us to become insular and antagonistic. Watt’s style will work to our benefit.”

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