Most Members to Steer Clear of ‘King of Pop’

Posted March 30, 2004 at 6:22pm

Few House Democrats are expected to meet with pop icon Michael Jackson when he comes to Capitol Hill today for his second visit in as many days, saying privately they worry the alleged child molester’s presence poses an unnecessary public relations problem for the party, senior-level aides and Members said Tuesday.

Jackson, who was recently indicted on molestation charges in California, is scheduled to meet with Members this afternoon on the musician’s efforts to battle the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

He also sat down with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) Tuesday evening to talk about his humanitarian efforts across the globe.

“We have lots of things going in our favor right now — this is a distraction,” one Democratic leadership aide said of Jackson’s trips to the Capitol, adding that leadership staff have made their displeasure known to the people who are arranging the meetings.

At the 2 p.m. meeting, to take place in the office of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the musician is expected to focus on his humanitarian work in Africa, specifically focusing on the AIDS epidemic and the number of orphans on that continent. Lee said the meeting, also hosted by Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), will include 16 African ambassadors. She added that the meeting is open to all Members.

“There are many issues we work on in the U.S. Congress,” Lee said. “Anytime we can emphasize those issues, we seek to do so.”

Members were divided across the Caucus about whether to attend today’s session, but universally did not expect a record turnout from the Caucus.

One Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expected fewer than 10 Members would attend the session with Lee, while a senior Democratic staffer predicted about half a dozen Members would participate, adding that no one in leadership was expected to attend. The largest turnout was expected from the Congressional Black Caucus.

“With everything that’s going on in Washington, this is a big zero on the radar screen for virtually every Member,” added a high-level Democratic staffer. “I bet most members of the Caucus have more important things on their agenda than Michael Jackson.”

But some Members defended Jackson’s visit to the Hill, saying the pop star has legitimate issues about which he has a right to talk to Congress. And, they insisted, Jackson is innocent until proven guilty.

“He’s coming up here talking about an issue a lot of people are concerned about,” Clay said.

Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn.), who didn’t know about Jackson’s visit, said he’s been enjoying Jackson’s music “since I was a child.”

Legal issues aside, Ford added, “if he’s “coming to talk about AIDS in Africa, I would consider going.”

One Democratic leadership aide said while Jackson is clearly a powerful spokesman on important issues such as AIDS, his effectiveness in that role is questionable at this time.

“He’s probably a very good resource for Members of Congress to address that issue, but to say the least on a press front, he’s somewhat of a spectacle,” the staffer said.

Jackson, who has insisted he is innocent on all charges, initially requested a sit-down with the full Congressional Black Caucus at the group’s regular Wednesday meeting, but that session was later canceled due to scheduling conflicts.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a CBC member who said he just learned of Jackson’s visit, said he at first blush sees nothing wrong with Jackson visiting the Hill to advance a humanitarian agenda. He added that it is not uncommon for public figures to come to Congress in tough times.

“There’s nothing wrong with him coming to shore up his credibility,” Hastings said. “The Congress is a place where people seek out opportunities to bring forth their agenda.”

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.