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Richmond: ‘We’re not giving up’ on voting rights

White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond, seen here in 2019 as a member of Congress, says people "should be frustrated" with the latest setback on voting right legislation.
White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond, seen here in 2019 as a member of Congress, says people "should be frustrated" with the latest setback on voting right legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Equal Time podcast’s Mary C. Curtis sat down Thursday with Biden administration senior adviser Cedric Richmond to talk about the unsuccessful attempt on Jan. 19 by Senate Democrats to both pass a voting rights bill and change the filibuster.

The conversation can be read via the transcript below, which was edited for brevity and clarity. You may also listen to the conversation here:

Mary C. Curtis: So my first question obviously is, after what didn’t happen Wednesday on voting rights in the Senate … now what?

Cedric RichmondWe’re going to keep fighting. The vice president will continue to lead it. You will see us continue to meet with stakeholders, galvanize people. You will see the Justice Department continue to monitor — sue when necessary — to protect the precious right to vote. But we’re not giving in. Yesterday was not the ending of our fight for the right to vote.

Curtis: Do you think you’ll ever get any allies from Republicans? Any support?

Richmond: I’m not sure. I mean, the short answer is I hope so. But I’ve not seen many Republicans display the courage to stand up to President Trump and dispute his “big lie.” But we can’t let their obstruction stop us. And so we’re going to continue to try.  The president said yesterday that he doesn’t mind talking to anybody, including Republicans, about voting rights and the need to protect it and protect our elections.

Curtis:  Now, you bring up “the big lie.” We’ve seen the damage of it. On the right, [there’s] a lot of grassroots organizing on the ground. They’re changing election laws, having laws that change how votes are counted and who does the counting. They’re recruiting poll watchers to be on the lookout for nonexistent fraud. Now, we saw how effective the activists turned out to be in the last election on the other side, particularly black women in states like Georgia. Will it take an even greater mobilization today, on the [left], among voting activists to ensure that people can exercise their right to vote and have that vote count?

Richmond: I think it’s an “all of the above” approach. First of all, we need to continue to fight to protect the right to vote. Second, we need to make sure that the Justice Department is doing their job in the civil rights division. And then third, we need to make sure that we are equipping organizers, activists and others to ensure that people have the ability to exercise their vote and that the vote counts. 

And so I think history shows us that people have never been … especially in the African American community … they’ve never been kind to people taking something from them. And this desire by Republicans to take the right to vote away, I think, will not be met with kindness. 

I think people are going to be infuriated. And I think people will show up, but that doesn’t mean that it absolves our duty and responsibility to fight to pass voting rights.

Curtis: Well, when the president was asked at his press conference on Wednesday about voting rights, it was pretty sobering. He was asked if voting rights bills aren’t passed, could there be a fair election with results that were considered legitimate? And his answer was, “it all depends.” So what does it depend on?

Richmond: Well, I think his answer was referring back to 2020, which was an election we should celebrate, in the midst of a pandemic. More Americans voted in that election in the history of the United States, … and it was safe, and it was secure and it was accurate. But I think that it was also a telling tale. And I don’t think that [Biden] was trying to say that he predicts an illegitimate election in 2022. But I think he was raising awareness about a lot of the bills being introduced and the ability to subvert the voters’ will. 

Curtis: There’s been a lot of second-guessing, looking back. And some folks have said that the president’s big push on it was too little, too late. Why hasn’t it been front and center as a priority over the last year?

Richmond: Well, oneI think we could have communicated a lot better. But a lot of people don’t realize the fact that the Supreme Court and the Shelby decision, where they threw out the Voting Rights Act, said that they were throwing it out because Congress did not go and build an up-to-date recent record. So Congress, which I believe was the right thing, embarked on field hearings, to build a record for voting rights and for the piece of legislation, because you have to identify a problem and propose a remedy that is designed to fix that problem. And so they did that. And that bill wasn’t introduced until almost … I think it was August. So that was the process in order to introduce a constitutional John Lewis voting rights bill.

Curtis: Now, I’ve done a lot of reporting on the ground talking to voters. And I’ve noticed that there’s a certain amount of job exhaustion, also some disappointment. So what do you say to Black voters in particular, who say they feel somewhat betrayed watching their ability to vote in peril?

Richmond: Well, they should be frustrated. And looking at these partisan legislatures, passing bills with only Republican votes, on a majority basis, to make it harder and add burdens to the right to vote is very frustrating. 

But if you were asking about whether they have been prioritized in this administration, then I would say the answer is absolutely. If you look at our reduction in Black poverty, Black child poverty, if you look at the fact that we’ve appointed more African American women to the courts of appeals than all other presidents combined — so if you look at every president besides us, add them up, they’ve put eight women on the United States courts of appeal. And in 365 days, we did eight people. 

If you look at our effort to combat community violence or maternal health or make sure that vaccines were distributed in an equitable manner, everything we do is centered around equity. Our historic investment in HBCUs. So everything we do is centered around equity and progress. And so I think that African American voters, once they hear everything that we’ve done in terms of being intentional about equity, I think that they will be pleased. 

Now, this is year one of a four-year term. We are 25 percent of the way through, but we believe that we’ve made some historic investments and advances for the African American community. Now, the truth of the matter is … when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act was passed [in the 1960s], the president had an overwhelming majority in the House and in the Senate. It’s no secret, we have 50 votes in the Senate. And we have to figure out ways to govern with that. 

And by the way, I think it’s important to note that we’re going to remove lead pipes delivering contaminated water to 10 million homes, a disproportionate share of those are Black and brown communities and rural communities. So we’re going to continue to do the work. But make no mistake about it — we have challenges, and we’re going to keep working to meet them.

Curtis: But the vote is something so central, so hard-fought for. And so [people] still want to see some action on that… 

Richmond: We are not giving up on it. The vice president is still going to lead this effort. We’re going to continue to meet, we’re going to continue to push. We’re not giving up on this. It was a vote yesterday [Wednesday]. It was a defining moment. We saw where people stood. But that doesn’t mean we pack up and go home. What it means is we double our effort, and we continue to work and we continue to try to build consensus in the Democratic Party for a way to get to yes — a way to pass the legislation. 

We’re not giving up on it. But the reality is, we have 50 votes. And if we had 49 votes, it would be a harsh reality that it would never get done. So we’re going to continue to work on it.

Curtis: Now, of course, the bill is named for the late, great statesman and activist John Lewis, who many of these members of Congress say wonderful things about as they are voting against the bill or the filibuster. What do you think that he would think about this moment in time? And what would he do?

Richmond: Well, if you look over my shoulder, the Life magazine cover that I have on my wall is from when they [Lewis and other civil rights activists] crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And it is signed by John, and it says, “Keep the faith.” And so what I would think that he would say in a moment like this is that we can’t get discouraged, that we have to fight and we have to fight on all fronts. And that’s what we’re going to do. 

I mean, his favorite line was we need to get in “good trouble.” But we’re going to continue to fight. And we’re going to continue to call people out. I think the president’s speech in Atlanta was very appropriate. And I think that he really framed it well, and the vice president, that this is a defining moment in history; you’re going to have to say what side that you want to be on. 

But what we should not do is allow people to discourage us from exercising our right to vote. And we’re going to try our best to beat them in court, beat them in Congress and beat them on Election Day. I think all of those three things should be our goals.

Curtis: Have you been in touch with those activists and in these organizations on the ground about a concerted strategy? 

Richmond: I am. And I will say that our activists have, they’ve done a yeoman’s job of making sure that people are aware of this — fighting it, amplifying it, calling people out for obstructing it. And we’re going to need those same activists to continue to try to push this across the finish line in Congress. And we’re going to need those same activists during the election cycle to make sure people can exercise their vote freely and without undue burden. So they play a big role. And you know, they’re the John Lewises of today.

Curtis: Well, three of my three eldest siblings were at some of the marches, even getting arrested, so they would be happy to hear you say that. Senior adviser Richmond, I know your time is short. And I want to thank you. Do you have any other things that you would like to share with our Equal Time listeners?

Richmond: The one thing we didn’t talk about was the fact that the economy, the fact that, you know, wages are up, we’ve created 6.4 million jobs — more than any president in the history of the United States. Our economic growth is the best in decades. And we’re going to continue to keep our heads down and make sure that we create jobs, wages go up and we’re going to work on the pandemic supply chain issues to make sure that we get inflation under control. 

So we’re paying attention to those issues that our families are facing. And we’re going to work like heck to make sure we address them.

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