Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield wants the House to address poverty in America, and feels he may have an unlikely partner in new Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
“We got into the weeds with him,'' Butterfield said of a past meeting between Ryan and the CBC, which took place before Butterfield was made CBC chairman. "He convinced me he understood pervasive poverty in America.” That meeting was in the spring of 2014, after Ryan made a controversial comment about poverty being caused by the “tailspin of culture” in “inner cities” where men don’t work or “value the culture of work.”
Ryan, who was then the Budget Committee chairman, denied he was referring to African-Americans but conceded he'd been “inarticulate. ”
His remarks didn't go over well with the CBC, but Butterfield walked away from the subsequent 2014 meeting convinced the Wisconsin Republican cared about the problem, and would be open to a bipartisan agreement to address it.
Early in his career, in the 1990s, Ryan worked for the self-described "bleeding heart conservative" former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York at his think tank, Empower America.
“He satisfied me he understands the value of lifting people out of poverty," Butterfield said of Ryan. "He also understands the government has a role to play in helping to lift people out of poverty. Not an exclusive role, but a role."
Both Butterfield and Ryan see themselves as policy wonks who love data, numbers and high-minded debate. And Ryan “is obviously a highly intelligent man,” Butterfield said. “When he’s engaged or challenged he can explain his position, and you may not agree with his position, but he can articulate his position in a way that can be understood.”
CBC leaders have typically been forceful advocates for their members, which has meant holding individuals and organizations accountable. Butterfield is no exception to that rule, but his leadership style and personal temperament are more collaborative than combative.
For instance, his pitch to Silicon Valley executives to hire more African-Americans for leadership roles is, “You’ve gotta do better. We want to help you. We are not in the business of confrontation, we are in the business of results. And I want to come back with some positive things to report to my caucus."
In many ways, his legislative style is informed by his time as a judge on the North Carolina Supreme and Superior courts, forcing him to be precise and deliberate and to reflect to overcome his own prejudices.
For instance, when now-Majority Whip Steve Scalise went on an apology tour to atone for having spoken to a racist group as a state legislator, Butterfield listened.
“We’ve become friends since the flap,” Butterfield said of the Louisiana Republican. “He reached out to me and now we meet monthly. ... No staff, [he] just came in here and hung up his coat on the back of the door and sat down.”
The two lawmakers have even discussed the issue of targeted funding to low-income communities in appropriations bills, a CBC priority. Scalise hasn't come through yet on that commitment, but the trust the two men have developed has helped keep the lines of communication open, even as Butterfield theorized on the limitations of Southern whites.
“I’ve been dealing with white Southerners all my life, OK? And it’s an interesting relationship that African-Americans have with Southern whites. It’s very interesting,” Butterfield mused. “We continuously try to reason with them to change their behavior and their thought patterns.
“Many of them are willing to do it, willing to turn the corner and look at more constructive legislation," he continued in a nod to Scalise. "Others are recalcitrant.”
Butterfield said he doesn't currently have a theory about white Midwesterners, viewing Ryan only as an individual rather than part of a cultural bloc — which might be lucky for the speaker.
Butterfield said he looked forward to reminding Ryan about the CBC's “10-20-30 plan,” which calls for Congress to direct 10 percent of federal funding to communities that have had a poverty rate of 20 percent for the past 30 years.
They haven't scheduled a meeting yet, but Butterfield said that isn't on Ryan: “I’m to blame for that; I have not reached out to him yet.”