GOP's Franks was in, is now out

THE MINORITY OF ONE IN THE BLACK CAUCUS

June 19, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Gary A. Franks wasn't asked to leave this week's meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus. Instead, he was told not to bother showing up.

Such is the life of the only black Republican in the House, a man swimming against the tide of the liberal 40-member Black Caucus, a man whose frustration boiled over to the point of resignation when he was excluded from another caucus meeting a week ago .

Mr. Franks is unabashedly conservative. He supported Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court when the caucus opposed it. He says his caucus colleagues "favor the same old approach, spend spend spend" and that "tax and spend is not the remedy."

"He's never voted for any position of the Black Caucus," observes Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, its chairman.

Yale graduate

One of six children of a brass mill worker and a hospital dietary aide, Mr. Franks, 40, is a Yale graduate who was captain of the basketball team.

He represents an overwhelmingly white western Connecticut district -- "definitely the most conservative in Connecticut," he says, and "the best district" in New England for former President George Bush last year.

Pictures of Mr. Franks with Mr. Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and other Republican luminaries hang on his office walls.

Helped by Mr. Bush and the Republican National Committee, he defeated former congressman Toby Moffett with 52 percent of the vote in 1990 to become the first black Republican representative in more than a half-century. Last year, in a three-way race, he won re-election with 45 percent of the vote.

He is, in the Congressional Black Caucus, a fish out of water, a man who but for his race would have virtually nothing in common with the newly enlarged and invigorated caucus.

"The caucus," says Rep. Albert Wynn of Maryland, a freshman member, "is as much ideological as it is race. As a black man, he has the right and should be in the caucus. But he is ideologically at odds with everyone else in the caucusbased on his conservative philosophy."

Mr. Franks caused a minor stir eight days ago when he announced that he was resigning from the caucus, saying he would explain his reasons at a news conference Monday. Instead, he announced that he had changed his mind, claiming rTC that constituents had persuaded him not to resign.

Asked to leave

The resignation announcement came two days after Democrats in the Black Caucus asked Mr. Franks to leave a meeting about President Clinton's abandonment of Lani Guinier's nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

This week, the group did not schedule its weekly Wednesday meeting -- at least, technically it didn't. Instead, what Mr. Mfume described as "a meeting of the Democratic caucus of the Congressional Black Caucus" was called. Mr. Franks, forewarned, didn't show up.

So, the relationship remains rocky. But, Mr. Franks, Mr. Mfume and other members of the caucus insist that it will endure -- if uneasily.

Democrats say Mr. Franks will be allowed to attend caucus meetings where issues of policy and government are discussed, but they will continue to exclude him from partisan strategy talks.

Will remain in caucus

Mr. Franks says he understands that concept and expects to be excluded sometimes. But, he also says he will remain in the caucus "as long as I am a member of Congress and black . . . regardless of the level of participation the other members grant me."

Mr. Franks has been included in caucus meetings with administration officials and with President Clinton.

Indeed, Mr. Franks says the president approvingly greeted his suggestions for giving tax credits to companies that provide "real, not make-work" summer jobs to teen-agers and for holding fathers responsible for children born out of wedlock.

Mr. Franks' aborted resignation was prompted, he said, by the increasing frequency of his exclusion from caucus meetings.

Mr. Franks sees the new caucus attitude toward him arising from President Clinton's election.

"Before, it was very easy for Democrats to pick up a stone and throw it at the White House," he says of the 12 years of Reagan-Bush rule.

Now, with the White House occupied by a Democrat, Black Caucus Democrats tend to exclude him from discussions.

Mr. Franks says their differences have been highlighted by Mr. Clinton's failure to deliver on some campaign promises, such as a middle-class tax cut and easing Mr. Bush's harsh policy toward Haitian refugees.

Democrats also tie his exclusion to the change in administrations, but from a different perspective.

The caucus' GOP contact

During his first term, Mr. Franks, the first black Republican representative in Congress in about six decades, had access to the White House and acted as a bridge between it and the predominantly Democratic Black Caucus. The change, caucus Democrats say, is frustrating for him.

His public spat with the Black Caucus Democrats may stem from some personality problems with other members, particularly freshmen, says Mr. Mfume.

Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, one of the freshmen, says, "There are members who felt we should kick [him] out." He says he did not agree with that, and Mr. Mfume says he doesn't expect Mr. Franks' removal from the caucus.

Mr. Franks' resignation announcement was a publicity stunt aimed at "appeasing and pleasing his crowd by taking on the radical left-wing Black Caucus," said Mr. Hastings.

"His [campaign] coffers will fill, but he doesn't understand that he is being patronized by his so-called Republican allies. They don't give a hoot about Gary Franks, and he doesn't even know that."

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