It sounds simple enough: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wanted to name a post office after a 94-year-old community activist in Berkeley, Calif.
After all, post office naming bills make up 12 percent of the laws Congress passes, and they usually sail through the House without even a passing notice from the rank and file.
But Lee’s honoree, Maudelle Shirek, became an unlikely political lightning rod last week — and the hubbub may have wider implications, with the House’s historically non-controversial “suspension calendar” coming under heightened scrutiny.
In a highly unusual move — and on a largely party line vote — the House last Tuesday rejected, 215-190, Lee’s bill to name a post office in Berkeley after Shirek, who, depending on who you talk to, is either the brave granddaughter of slaves who campaigned for fair housing and civil rights before becoming a senior citizen activist on the Berkeley City Council, or a communist sympathizer and an apologist for cop killers.
Now, both parties are seeking to capitalize on the controversy. The National Republican Congressional Committee is using the vote to attack 46 House Democrats in marginal districts who voted to pass the bill, while Democrats counter that the politicization of what should have been a local issue affecting only a liberal city in California could come back to haunt the GOP.
“It would be unfortunate if there were a legion of interns looking for white robes in the closets of people [Republicans] want to name post offices after,” said one House Democratic aide. “This is a question of whether the leadership is going to allow the suspension calendar and an issue that has traditionally been about local purview to become something where people can score cheap political points.”
Lee said she would not suddenly start looking into the background of every prospective Republican post office honoree, but she said that opposing such bills is “a very dangerous precedent to establish.”
But NRCC spokesman Carl Forti defended the political use of the vote, warning that Democrats should be careful with whom they align.
“It became pretty clear that you could draw a distinction here between what Republicans were voting for and what Democrats were voting for,” Forti said.
Indeed, in a press release sent out on Thursday, Forti attacks freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) for voting for the Shirek bill.
“Either Rep. Bean agrees with naming U.S. post offices after people associated with communism or she was hoping voters wouldn’t notice,” Forti said in the statement.
To those not immersed in the politics of the left, there was little reason to suspect that Lee’s measure was doomed. After all, the bill had been put on the suspension calendar, which is designed to expedite consideration of noncontroversial bills. Once a bill is on the calendar, it requires a two-thirds majority for approval.
“It was on the suspension calendar,” Lee said in a brief telephone interview. “Everyone agreed no one would object.”
But from the beginning, according to several California Republican lawmakers, the Shirek naming bill was far from noncontroversial.
“This person was a radical leftist,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “I heard that she was a fan of [Cuban President] Fidel Castro, and that’s not the type of person you should name public buildings after.”
Shirek’s alleged support for freeing convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal — and for a Marxist library in Berkeley — had prompted many Republicans to withhold their support for the bill. Because all members of a state delegation must sign off on post office naming bills before they can move to the House floor, Lee’s bill was held in limbo for roughly two years.
But last year, Lee decided to push back. She threatened to use her power to object to post-office naming bills as a way of preventing other California lawmakers from passing their pet projects.
“Barbara Lee refused to move any post-office naming bill until hers moved,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who noted his own measure to honor the late Rep. Dalip Singh Saund (D-Calif.) was blocked by Lee. Issa’s bill finally passed in February.
Lee spokesman Nathan Britton said Issa’s bill also had faced objections from some in the California delegation, but was slated to get a vote in the 108th Congress, while objections to Lee’s bill continued to prevent it from getting a vote.
“Congressman Issa agreed with her that it was unfair,” Britton said, adding that Issa agreed to help her secure more GOP support for the measure.
Indeed, Issa said Lee at least deserved to get a vote on her bill.
“It’s inappropriate for us to assume that all 53 [members of the California delegation] have to agree,” Issa said. “To block it from a vote is not reasonable.”
Ultimately, Lee got the entire California delegation to adopt that viewpoint, which made it possible for her to get the measure on the suspension calendar. It was slated to be approved by voice vote.
“Whatever the concerns were, she addressed them and the California delegation effectively signed off on it,” Britton said.
Then, a new obstacle emerged. A resourceful constituent of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) alerted him to Shirek’s alleged links to communism. King then informed Lee that he wanted a recorded vote so he could express his opposition.
Meanwhile, his staff sent out an e-mail on the issue, which King said became “a phenomenon. I didn’t expect that the naming bill would be voted down.”
After the vote, Lee unloaded her anger on King for trying to usurp local leaders’ prerogatives.
“That a Republican from Iowa could launch a campaign to deny naming a local post office after this 94-year-old civil rights leader … is just shameful,” Lee said in a statement. “Mr. King’s campaign of innuendo and unsubstantiated ‘concern’ is better suited to the era of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, than today’s House of Representatives.”
King responded that McCarthy, a former Wisconsin Senator who was censured by the Senate for improperly investigating Americans’ ties to communists, “was a hero for America,” and that Hoover, the controversial former FBI director, “was a giant when it came to law enforcement,” The Associated Press reported.
King told Roll Call he understands that, “it’s been out of style to call people communists since the McCarthy era, but we go after communist policies [in the Congress] on a regular basis. We just don’t call them that.”
But it appears that King wasn’t the only one urging a “no” vote on the Shirek naming bill. Once a recorded vote was set, California Republicans began urging their colleagues to vote against the measure as well, Issa said.
Issa said Lee shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome, given the divisiveness of the bill from the beginning.
“She acted like she was double crossed,” Issa said. “Barbara Lee should have worked for consensus and built up a base of Republicans who understood what she sees in this individual.”