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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.