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CBC Lukewarm on Watt Trial Balloon: 'Not That Sexy'

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Watt’s name has been floated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, but some Congressional Black Caucus members see the Cabinet post as one that operates “mainly in the shadows.”

North Carolina Rep. Melvin Watt’s name is in the news as a potential pick to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, one week after the new chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a blistering letter to President Barack Obama complaining about his record of nominating African-Americans to his Cabinet.

But the trial balloon is getting a mixed reaction from CBC members who say the post, while important, isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

“The problem is that most people, including African-Americans, will not know what that job is. It’s one of those jobs that operates mainly in the shadows in Washington because it’s not that sexy,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, the CBC’s most recent former chairman.

“Given a choice, you would like to be Commerce secretary,” the Missouri Democrat continued. Commerce is the Cabinet position the CBC suggested for Watt in a letter to Obama.

Cleaver added: “But you can’t say that they offered him a nothing position. ... It’s not like they are offering him to be the secretary of the ‘Save the Otter Foundation.’”

Watt, who recently accompanied Obama to North Carolina on Air Force One, declined to comment on the possibility that he will be nominated for a Cabinet post.

Asked whether Watt’s nomination to lead the FHFA would satisfy the CBC’s push for more African-Americans in Obama’s Cabinet, Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge said, “No.”

Fudge escalated her campaign to get more African-Americans into the Cabinet in a letter last week ripping Obama for a lack of diversity among his closest advisers.

“The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity,” the Ohio Democrat wrote in the March 11 letter.

Fudge said CBC members’ offices have received phone calls from angry constituents questioning why Obama hasn’t nominated anyone with the ability “to speak to the unique needs of African-Americans. Their ire is compounded by the overwhelming support you’ve received from the African-American community.”

Outside of a two-sentence statement sent to reporters when news of the letter broke, White House officials have not responded to it in any way, members said.

In fact, the relationship has deteriorated to the point that top CBC officials are no longer expecting a response, although they are somewhat defensive about answering the question.

“What’s to address? It is what it is. I’m not sure what you’re asking me. Who are you?” Fudge said March 14 as she was leaving a meeting between House Democrats and Obama.

Another senior CBC member, pressed on whether he thought the White House should formally respond to the letter, feigned disinterest.

“I can’t remember,” the lawmaker said.

The White House has signaled that Obama will meet face to face with the CBC, but the meeting has not yet been scheduled, Fudge said.

At last week’s meeting between Obama and House Democrats, no one from the CBC asked the president about the group’s concerns, even as some members, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, approached the microphone to ask about other issues.

Obama’s Cabinet has been a sore spot for some caucus members for a while, and it is one of the most palpable illustrations of the complicated relationship between the first black president and the CBC.

A recent Politics365.com post by Lauren Victoria Burke, who also authors a blog about African-Americans in Congress, put the matter in stark relief.

President Bill Clinton nominated seven African-Americans to his Cabinet. President George W. Bush nominated four. Obama has nominated only one — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — although he has installed blacks such as U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice and EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson to other sub-Cabinet positions.

“President Obama has selected only one African-American to his cabinet so far, the lowest number of any President in 38 years,” Burke wrote.

CBC members said Watt, a member of the Financial Services Committee, would be a perfect fit for the FHFA, given his sharp intellect and experience on housing issues.

And some members, including Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Hank Johnson of Georgia, said the post is quite prestigious in their view.

“FHFA is very important. I don’t think it’s small potatoes at all. And for all the people who are looking for some write-downs, they need somebody who understands the issues and understands the importance of getting the housing market working again,” Ellison said.

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