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Friday, April 28, 2006
Interview with former NAACP Chairman Kweisi Mfume
Yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to speak with Kweisi Mfume, one of two leading candidates for the Democratic Senatorial nomination in the state of Maryland (the other being Congressman Ben Cardin, with whom we spoke in February).
Mfume and I covered a range of topics, including the Iraq War, gas prices, poverty, and why he believes the blogosphere should get involved in the race. You can listen to the interview here (warning: a 26.9 .mp3 file) or read the rush transcript below.
Mfume and I covered a range of topics, including the Iraq War, gas prices, poverty, and why he believes the blogosphere should get involved in the race. You can listen to the interview here (warning: a 26.9 .mp3 file) or read the rush transcript below.
Jonathan Singer: April is shaping up to be the bloodiest month for Americans in Iraq since November and there appears to be no end in sight to the violence. As Senator, what would you do to improve the situation in the country?[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]
Kweisi Mfume: That country?
Singer: Yes, that’s correct.
Mfume: I don’t know if you can improve that situation. I think the slide towards civil war has accelerated at a breakneck pace, that the violence that we’ve seen escalating over the last ten months continues to increase. I just believe it’s an extremely volatile situation that may not have an American solution. The solution may be an Iraqi solution. I just don’t know at this point.
As someone who has been against this war since the first resolution was offered in the House, which kind of gave the President permission to do so or did give him permission to do so, I’ve just been opposed to all of the reasons why we are there. The American public was lied to deliberately, maliciously and unnecessarily about all these reasons that didn’t really exist. And once we got there – as the leaders of our military say, “liberated Baghdad” – and once we were able to apprehend Saddam Hussein, we were all told that in another year the Iraqi forces would be able to take care of themselves. We would provide armament and training, et cetera. Well three years have gone by and today is like it was that first day. There’s just no end in sight.
So I don’t know if the solution there is an American solution. It may be a United Nations solution to what’s going on. That’s why it’s been so regrettable that we have sort of ignored the United Nations in this entire process. That’s why we have the organization and that’s why the organization has credibility. We need international peacekeepers in an international role in Iraq, not just an American role.
Singer: Your former colleague Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania put forward a plan that would set a deadline for the withdrawal of troops. Do you support a deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq?
Mfume: Absolutely. The deadline was this year, correct?
Singer: Yeah, I believe it was.
Mfume: The end of this year. I support that. I’ve been calling for that for the last two years.
My position is that if we can set a time for the Iraqis to ratify a constitution, if we can set a time certain for their elections, we ought to be able to set a time certain for this nation to start the process of removing troops from Iraq and doing a better job at really fighting terrorism worldwide by having the resources we need to do that.
Singer: Another one of your former colleagues, Charlie Rangel of New York, put forward a plan that would institute a draft to broaden the base upon which the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – and indeed the military as a whole – upon which it’s based. Would you support a plan like that?
Mfume: I don’t know enough about Charlie’s plan except to say that it was welcomed discussion and dialogue that we were not having over an issue that at its very roots spoke to trying to find a way to share a military burden, to spread it across all population groups.
I grew up in the Vietnam era and I know that it was very difficult no matter who you were to get away from the draft no matter how much money you had, unless you were very politically connected or unless you went to Canada.
In this instance what we’ve seen over the last many years since the end of the draft has been an increase in the efforts to recruit poor White, poor Black, poor Latino kids and even Korean kids into the military, recognizing that in many of those instances a lot of those young people really needed work and they really needed skills. So we have this all volunteer army that in many respects does not have as a part of its membership kids from very affluent homes, no matter what their color. That’s just not been the case.
So Charlie’s effort, as I saw it, was first of all to get the discussion going about the lopsided nature of our fighting forces with respect to their own economic circumstances. I don’t know beyond that how he planned to unroll it out because the hearings never got underway substantially enough to explain that.
So I don’t know. When I tell people that I’m not automatically against it, their response has been, “Well, we don’t need a draft.” And my response is, “Yeah, we don’t need war.” But we do need a discussion on this. And it’s got to be a discussion that brings in every segment of our society.
Singer: On a not entirely unrelated topic, gas prices are above $3 a gallon around the country and Exxon today just announced one of the largest quarterly profits in history. What steps should Congress and the White House take to ease the burden of high gas prices?
Mfume: Just a quick question – do you know what dollar amount they announced today?
Singer: I don’t have it off-hand. I think it was around 8 billion, maybe.
Mfume: Yeah, because the number was 10 at the end of the last quarter, which was the all-time record. So this is the second all-time record, and both of those are held by Exxon and both within a six month period, which is almost criminal in some respects.
There are a few things going here, and some of it is too little, too late, and that has been the White House reaction to all of this. Because we knew – those of us who are not even in government – that when Katrina knocked out oil producing capacity in the Gulf and that we were going into the winter months, everything was in place – kind of like a perfect storm – so that by the time we got to the spring again, gas prices would be out of control. Exxon had closed out that quarter with a $10 billion profit, and most people were clamoring for some sort of government intervention into what was going on with these obscene profits. And there was none. So where we are today to some of us was kind of predicted back in the month of September, and unfortunately it has come to pass.
I believe that, if I might just take a moment to talk about several things that are very important here, including government intervention, which as I said now is too little, too late with what the President and the Congress are talking about – not even what they’re doing, because they haven’t even done anything – but with their talking they’re a little late on some of this to provide relief.
Obviously we need an all-out consumer recognition and a consumer push on the notion of conservation because we’ve got to find a way in our own way, I think, to sort of deny the wholesale profits that are taking place by finding a way to cut back on what we’re doing as those who consume oil and gas.
The other thing I strongly believe is that unless we as a society and a nation get very serious about alternative fuel development, we will be held as prisoners in this whole oil and gas process for the rest of our lives. We talked about it. I’m old enough to remember when the first discussion started in 1974 in earnest when we were going through the first oil embargo and here we are now 32 years later and we still haven’t done anything. So there’s a real need now, if not an absolute mandate to rapidly get started on alternative fuel development and make that a national priority, bar none.
The other thing is that there was a real need in my opinion for the government to exercise its ability to influence OPEC, which has not been taking place. And I’m talking about since we’re providing much of the security for the oil-producing countries, in particular, we ought to be getting some sort of a discount rate per barrel on the oil that’s coming out of there that’s being consumed to a large part by this country. We don’t insist on that – I don’t know – and as a result we don’t get it. But at the very least, as the nation that’s providing a great deal of security for those countries, we ought to be at least trying to get that done.
And then on the domestic side, with respect to these companies, I think to some extent that there might even be collusion going on among companies. It’s not an accusation, it’s a thought. But I can’t help to think it because the way prices seem to be fixed and set and how these astronomical, obscene profits continue to take place quarter after quarter. And I think we need government regulation of oil companies in this country, bar none, so that we can get to the bottom of whether or not there’s something a) illegal taking place, in terms of price setting and price fixing, and b) whether or not there’s some sort of way to rein in the uncontrolled ability of these nations to profit on American consumers.
Singer: A few minutes ago you brought up Hurricane Katrina and the response to it. Around the time of the Hurricane or slightly thereafter, President Bush decried the poverty and said that serious action must be taken, yet we haven’t heard him say anything about it in the intervening months and it seems to have dropped off of his radar. Can you just talk a little bit about the response to Hurricane Katrina and what should be done today to improve some of the systematic issues that were brought to Americans’ minds through the story?
Mfume: The response to the Hurricane was a farce. Not only does the average person on the street know that, the entire world knows that. The comments of the world community were comments borne of disbelief at the lack of response by our government as international cameras and international television took those pictures around the world. People in other countries could not believe it. So you know it was difficult for Americans to accept that this response by this government was anything less than inadequate. It was totally insufficient.
The President’s proclamations and the President’s meanderings that took place formally and informally about why this was such a terrible tragedy and why we have to do something about it and no American should live like that were pontifications of the moment because very little has come out of that. We haven’t even corrected FEMA yet, let alone correct the problems that were contributing to the poverty.
We fought a War on Poverty in this country under President Johnson. Many Americans thought we were winning it. By the beginning of the 1970s, one out of five American children were living in poverty. Today in this country one out of five American children get up and go to bed living in poverty. So we’ve not come very far at all. And it is a situation that is not segmented by race; these are poor White kids, poor Black kids, poor Latinos. They live in every city, town, hamlet and barrio across this nation. They didn’t ask for this situation, but they’re growing up with odds against them in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth.
They’re oh so many contributing factors that if there’s not just the government awareness but a government intervention to try to deal with those factors, we’ve already put in place a movement to produce a generation of teenagers, which these children will soon become, and then adults that will be at an extreme disadvantage, that will not be significantly a part of the work force, that will not contribute as they should as adults, that will require additional and special needs that are medical in nature and educational in nature, and we will have lost, really and not just rhetorically, an entire generation because of a situation manifest in poverty that we could be doing something about.
So I think it’s an abomination that this President would stand up in that moment when people were so vulnerable and looking for leadership and to talk about how this was such an American tragedy, and here we are six, seven months later and most people look at what has come out of that and cannot measure that because it has been so small.
Public schools in too many of these cities and towns and hamlets around the country remain overcrowded and ill-equipped. In some of those schools drugs are more available than textbooks. Too many of these kids are living in dilapidated housing where lead paint and lead dust, because of the construction of the housing, continue to infect them and ultimately their motor skills and their ability to think… and creates other sorts of biological issues within them.
We see violence taking place, occurring in a subculture, where kids, because of their poverty, find themselves a part of the subculture. And it becomes a need and a requirement just to provide everyday. It’s a subculture of drugs and guns. It affects all of us, either directly or indirectly. We don’t hear about any of that at the White House. We don’t hear any concern about that coming out of the United States Senate.
We reap what we sow. I don’t know how many times we have to live through a generation to understand that, but we will either pay for that now or as a society we will pay for it later.
Singer: Michael Steele has made some rather controversial remarks during the course of the campaign thus far. He seemed not to be concerned by the Governor’s appearance at a Whites-only golf club. He also likened stem-cell research to Nazi science. Is he serious enough to be Senator, let alone Lieutenant Governor?
Mfume: I think his candidacy is serious. I know that there are a couple of factors that exist in this state that don’t necessarily get national attention that could be the difference in whether or not he happens to get elected.
He will obviously get the nomination of his party. His electability hinges on a couple things, some of which have nothing to do with his position on those issues and everything to do with the fact that the Democratic Party in the state of Maryland has been extremely slow in terms of providing opportunities for African-Americans and Latinos in this state to run for and to be a part of statewide office.
In fact, I think Maryland was established going back to 1790 or something, and in that time we’ve never had – never – not just a Black or Latino elected to statewide office, we’ve never had one nominated. And the only woman in that entire period of time was Barbara Mikulski. And that’s a shame and an outrage when you consider that 40 percent of the Democratic Party in Maryland are Black voters and a growing amount are Latino voters. In a progressive state that has a two to one Democratic registration it’s almost unheard of. And so people are getting tired of business as usual, and when I say people, I’m talking specifically about the base here of the Democratic Party.
And that anger poured out four years ago when there was a gubernatorial election and when many people were hoping that for the first time the Democratic Party would nominate a Black or Latino person as Lieutenant Governor – not nominate, when the nominee would pick someone that way and the party would rally behind that person. Not only did that not happen, nobody was ever on that short list from either of those racial or ethnic groups. Nobody was talked to in the community. In fact, Black and Latino leaders across the state had to simply wait until the press conference to find out who that person was who had been chosen. And when they found out, it was a guy named Lawson who had come out of the military who hadn’t lived in the state that long who 30 days prior had been a Republican.
So it was a huge slap on the face, and what happened was on election day there was a lot of crossover voting, Black Democrats voting for this Republican ticket that included a Black Lieutenant Governor nominee – not for the first time; this was the third time Republicans had done this – and a lot of other Black and Latino voters stayed home. So Maryland got for the first time in 40 years its first Republican Governor and Lieutenant Governor.
I’m saying I think that a lot of that has manifesting itself around the state today given the fact that the party never embraced my candidacy – first of all they never encouraged it – but they never embraced it afterwards and have done a lot of things to get me out of the race. When I say the party, I don’t mean the formal party – not the director of the Maryland state party, but these are, in my opinion, the old party bosses that still want to control things.
But more than that, Michael Steele – who shows up in Black churches and at events in the larger Black community, unlike some of his predecessors on the Republican side and has an ability to talk and work with minority business people and others – has an appeal not because of his issues but because to some of those persons he represents hope and a breakthrough that quite frankly ought to belong to the Democratic Party. We’ve given up the high road as a party on this whole issue of inclusion and diversity to Republicans, and it’s in many respects style over substance.
I don’t know. I just know that looking at this and trying to answer your question as directly and bluntly as I can, I can only say his positions on issues not withstanding, we need to take his candidacy extremely serious in this state for all of the reasons I’ve enunciated and for others I might not be able to think of right now. Because if we don’t, as we did four years ago, we could get into a situation where again the Democratic Party suffers a great loss in a state that has a two to one Democratic registration, large Black and Latino population, and considers itself “progressive.”
Singer: Just a couple more questions. As a result of a Washington Post article that ran a year ago tomorrow that detailed some accusations of favoritism at the NAACP. Some may have qualms about your candidacy. Are these concerns well founded? What would you like to say to these people?
Mfume: I don’t think that they’re well founded concerns. There was an accusation of favoritism by a former employee who no longer worked at the association who said she heard that in order to get ahead at the association that you had to have some special kind of relationship with me, that I had to like you. That’s about as far from the truth as you can get because it ignores the fact that more women had been promoted under my leadership at the NAACP than any time in its 90-year history. And those women were promoted because of their brains, not their bodies. They were promoted because they deserved it. In many instances, they’ve gone on not only there but elsewhere to continue to shine and outshine many of their male counterparts because they have the skills and the training in their respective areas and the tenacity to hold on to make a real difference.
The other interesting thing about the article was that there was not one person, past or present at the NAACP or having used to be at the NAACP to step forward and corroborate that at all. It was just this one former employee who, to I assume some extent, was disgruntled that she didn’t make enough money and who didn’t file a formal complaint – never filed a grievance – but after her employment sent a letter to the board with that accusation.
I’m not trying to say that people should not look at that. I think they need to look at everything regarding candidates. But I think it’s unfair to give that any more credence than it deserves. It is what it is and what it was. And because it was never corroborated, because it was the accusation of one former employee, we have to keep that in perspective.
And let me tell you why. This is not a situation where, like with Arnold Schwarzenegger, there were all these separate people coming forward in separate towns making accusations that he groped me and fondled me and embarrassed me. That was not the case at all. But there was a real need to try to take a small story and to make it into a large story and to drag it out for a long time because there was a real need by some people to get me out of the race and to discredit my candidacy any way they could. And I assume that most of them thought that a result of that I would get out. But I’m made of a different kind of substance. I realize that when people are trying to smear you with stuff that in many respects doesn’t stick that they will hope and pray that you break.
What’s happened since then is that a lot of people got angry when they realized this for what it was and I think got angry not at any one specific person, because we don’t know how this whole thing was developed, carried out in the press for such a long time when it was, in the minds of some people, a very small story that people were trying to make into a larger one.
But I think people got angry about the fact that here’s somebody that’s done everything that the party has asked him to do in 25 years and even before there was any story, for 46 days I was the only candidate in the race and the party never once said, “We think we could support this individual.” So I think people were probably more concerned about that aspect of it.
But a race is what it is. A second big thing was that after that let’s find an effort to get all the endorsements for the candidate of our choice and the candidate of choice in this instance was Congressman Cardin, who the Democratic Party just opened up the floodgates here. Every endorsement you could possibly get he got. Whether he tried or not he got them. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve them, I’m just saying it’s interesting how the party rallied to do that.
And then the third thing that happened after that was an effort to now let’s get all of the money we can get. My opponent has gotten and raised, to his credit, a great deal of money. The difference between us is that I don’t take special interest money from pharmaceuticals and from oil and gas companies. I just have a set of principles that says if I’m going to run this race, I’m going to try to do this the right way from a populist position and in a principled manner so I’m not bought and sold and I don’t belong to anybody other than the people of this state who go out and vote.
So there are a lot of differences there and long story short, 14 months later I’m still here and I’m still going around the state every day, seven days a week, reaching out to people of all colors of all communities from all backgrounds and walks of life. And given all of that, I’m neck-and-neck in the polls in every poll we’ve seen produced with my chief opponent.
So I think that people here in the state have said, “We’re going to think for ourselves. We’re going to make our own minds up. We want a campaign, not a coronation. And we want an opportunity to have candidates before us so we can question them and understand not only their principles, but also their ideals, their beliefs and their vision for the future.”
Singer: Last question. Is there anything you’d like to say specifically to members of the liberal/progressive blogosphere to get them more involved in your campaign?
Mfume: I’d like them to understand that I’m an unapologetic progressive. I don’t apologize for my views. I’m very proud the fact that I don’t support the PATRIOT Act, that I’m in support of stem-cell research, that I’m a 100 percent pro-union candidate – have been all my life – that this campaign is a pro-privacy campaign to get the government out of illegal wiretaps and out of our medical records and out of our banking records, that I’m the candidate that stands up over and over again that believes that it’s an abomination and a sin for a half million Americans to lose their pensions because a couple of corporations were playing slick games and getting out of a commitment they made to workers all along, and that I’m the candidate that has been opposed to this war all along, who finds it outrageous that poverty lives among us at the rate it does and that 46 million people have no health insurance, which is the population of 24 states.
And I think that in order for Democrats to win, we really have to stand for something and we have to say to people, “These are our core beliefs.” Because otherwise we’re kind of like Republicans light. If I want a beer, I just get a beer, if I want something light, I get a Bud Light. But if I want something different, it’s because I know that there really is a difference. And Democrats, in order to win, have to be different, have to, I think, stand for something, have to be able to talk in plain English to everyday people, and have to be prepared to fight again for the heart and soul of our nation.
Singer: Well, thank you so much for your time and good luck in your campaign.
Mfume: Thank you, Mr. Singer. I appreciate the opportunity, too.
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