Jesse Jackson Ready for the fight

January 08, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

He might seem a spent political force, a liberal foundering in a conservative riptide, but the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is biding his time, waiting for the Gingrich revolution to ignite a new social protest movement.

Led into power officially last week by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans will be unmasked as protectors of a wealthy, conscienceless elite, Mr. Jackson predicted, adding that there will be a backlash when voters see that, once again, they were misled.

"I am fired up, determined and full of hope," Mr. Jackson told a group of friends and financial supporters during a recent visit to Baltimore.

At a time when many Democrats are running toward the right, Mr. Jackson remains an unrepentant liberal -- a firm believer in the politics of the New Deal and the Great Society.

He said the Gingrich-led call for sharp cuts in poverty programs, for lifting some environmental regulations and for middle- and upper-income tax relief would reunite a coalition of unionists, minorities, environmentalists, the poor and women.

Using the Christmas story as an anecdotal backdrop, he voiced concern about the poor, and how they'd be hurt by cuts in social spending made to free money for a middle-class tax cut.

"Neither Mary nor Joseph nor Jesus were middle class," Mr. Jackson said. "In this atmosphere, Mary, as a teen-age mother, would have been humiliated. She was unmarried to Joseph, just engaged to him, an unemployed carpenter, and Jesus would have been sent to an orphanage."

Members of the liberal coalition had become complacent and less focused on their objectives when the Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Jackson said. Now, with Republicans chairing key committees and the GOP pushing to dismantle the congressional caucuses, a new social protest movement is bound to form, Mr. Jackson predicted.

His optimism, to be sure, came wrapped in warnings.

Speaker Gingrich would lead the nation back toward the day of segregationists like Lester Maddox, the restaurant owner who passed out ax handles to his patrons and was subsequently elected governor of Georgia, Mr. Gingrich's home state.

"Gingrich wants to wipe out the legacy of the Great Society," he said. "He won't succeed. . . . Maddox could not stop the clock, and we didn't have the right to vote then. Gingrich does not have the power to turn back the clock. He may announce that as his intent, but while he is working on that agenda we will not be crocheting."

Gingrich vulnerable

Just as Republicans have made President Clinton a negative rallying point for their faithful, Mr. Jackson believes Mr. Gingrich could become a symbol of the big-money Washington elite.

Mr. Gingrich's Georgia congressional district is "economically gerrymandered," drawn to protect the interests of big businesses located there: Home Box Office, Lockheed, AT&T, Kimberly-Clark and others, Mr. Jackson said. The constituency is about 90 percent white with a median income substantially higher than the rest of Georgia. "He attacks the poor because he doesn't represent them," Mr. Jackson concludes.

Despite what looks like an ideal district, he observed, Mr. Gingrich barely won re-election in his last two outings.

"If he wants term limitations, that's what we plan to give him. We needs to know he's beatable. He is no lifetime congressman." Mr. Jackson said he gave two speeches in Mr. Gingrich's district recently and discovered pockets of voters who might be won over by the right opponent.

He said he listened carefully as Mr. Clinton spoke about his proposal, the "middle-class bill of rights," hoping to find some concern for the poor and heard none: "Any plan that does not defend the poor and deliver the needy does not have a moral core."

Mr. Jackson also made the following observations:

* On the last election: Mr. Clinton was repudiated because he promised help and hope but produced neither.

"He's gone from running on reinvestment to governing on deficit reduction to retooling on tax cuts.

Unions who were promised reinvestment and community development banks got nothing. And blacks who were promised more justice got a record number of jails. So, you had a demoralized base -- low walls, not high water.

"We registered 2 million new voters in 1984. Ronald Reagan was elected president, but the Democrats won the Senate. The conservative water was just as high then, but our walls were higher."

Rebuilding the walls, he said, will require not only hard work but complicated choices. Should the oppressed, the minorities, the unions and others stick solely with the Democrats? Is there any hope for the "new" thinking espoused by the Democratic Leadership Council? He was dubious about all existing party structures:

"Republicans won't register blacks because they might vote Democratic and Democrats won't register them because they might demand justice and inclusion."

Vouchers unfair

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