Speaker offers Mfume 'swap' of districts A DAY WITH THE SPEAKE OF THE HOUSE

January 14, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday that he planned to "swap districts" with Rep. Kweisi Mfume and spend a few days in Baltimore this spring as part of an effort to enlighten House Republicans and members who represent minority districts about each other's worlds.

But Mr. Mfume, who spoke with Mr. Gingrich about the program this week, appeared less than enthusiastic about the idea when asked about it yesterday. He said he would "reserve judgment" about the program and hold off his support until he learned more about it and was convinced it had a well-defined purpose.

"Newt is a person who has a lot of different and ever-emerging ideas; this is one of those ideas," Mr. Mfume said. "The trips, if they come to pass, have to be more than social visits. They have to have a stated purpose and a stated objective and involve going to places not listed on a tour guide and talking to people the cameras often miss."

In an interview with The Sun yesterday, the House speaker also said that Baltimore was one of six cities for which he was proposing a program to pay children in public housing $2 for every book they read. He challenged The Sun to pay half the cost of the program.

On his congressional exchange program, Mr. Gingrich said that within a couple of weeks, he would map out his idea to have House members spend two or three days in other lawmakers' districts this May or June.

His plan, he said, is to have "a Republican go to every black and Hispanic district in the country and . . . have a member of the black and Hispanic caucuses go to a Republican district so we create a dialogue between the members and a dialogue of experience."

He said he hoped the visits would provide House members with experiences they would remember the rest of their lives and would create "cross-ideological, cross-racial friendships" among lawmakers.

He said, he hoped the experiences would raise awareness by exposing Republicans to "a level of pain and a level of anguish" they would deem unacceptable in this country, and by exposing those who represent members of minority groups to "a lot of people who are successful who are saying there are rules and patterns and habits of success."

Mr. Mfume said he had given no thought to where in his district he might take the speaker if the program is carried out, but assumed Baltimoreans would give the Republican leader "at least one earful."

For his part, Mr. Gingrich said he would probably take Mr. Mfume to Williamson's Barbecue in his Georgia district as well as the Civil War battlefield at Kennesaw Mountain, the Lockheed Corp. and Harry's Farmer's Market, "which is one of the great shopping places in the state."

Mr. Mfume, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, appeared concerned that the concept behind the "swap" had changed since Mr. Gingrich first described it to him 18 months ago. Back then, the Maryland Democrat said, Mr. Gingrich's idea was "not so much to take a refresher course on ethnic groups as much as it was to feel the totality of someone else's district."

During his 75-minute interview with The Sun, Mr. Gingrich also described a volunteer program called "Earning By Learning." He challenged The Sun -- the first of the major metropolitan newspapers he plans to appeal to in six cities -- to pay half the cost of the program for Baltimore if he raises the money, through private donations, for the other half.

The program, which he said had been conducted in about 17 states in the past seven or eight years, pays second- and third-graders in public housing $2 for every book, borrowed from the public library, they read.

"What you do is you suddenly create in the housing project an environment in which kids are walking around carrying books," Mr. Gingrich said. He added that the average child in the program reads between 20 and 30 books, earning up to about $60.

Along with Baltimore, Mr. Gingrich said he plans to propose the idea for Washington, Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Mary Junck, publisher of The Sun, said yesterday that the program sounded like a good idea and that she was interested in hearing more details about it.

Mr. Mfume, too, said he thought the reading program sounded worthwhile, but he was lukewarm in his endorsement.

"Young people today need a total approach," he said, expressing concerns about cuts in aid to the poor that are part of the GOP agenda. "We can't do that [implement the reading program] and reduce Head Start funding. We can't do that and not deal with the drug problem making its way into elementary schools. We can't do that without safer communities where young people are not fearful for their lives."

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