NAACP President Mfume meets with House GOP leader Armey

At odds over Bush, men find common ground in need for election reform

March 09, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - House Majority Leader Dick Armey and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume discussed everything from proposed tax cuts to racial profiling yesterday during a meeting in Armey's Capitol office that followed weeks of heated accusations from both sides.

The hourlong meeting was closed to the news media, but the two men held a news conference shortly afterward, with the Texas Republican declaring that "Kweisi Mfume and I just had a wonderful visit."

Armey, standing next to Mfume at a podium outside the Capitol, said education, economics, hate crimes and racial profiling were among the issues discussed. The men, colleagues when Mfume was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, also talked about Armey's concern over an ad sponsored by the National Voter Fund during last year's presidential campaign.

The television and radio ads used the slaying of James Byrd - a black man who was dragged to death in Texas after being tied by white men to the back of a pickup truck - as its backdrop. It criticized President Bush for not supporting hate crimes legislation. The National Voter Fund is an organization affiliated with the NAACP.

Mfume said the two also discussed Social Security reform, slavery in Sudan, a proposal to double the budget for the National Institutes of Health and other topics of concern to African-Americans.

The meeting between Armey and Mfume drew heavy attention because of accusations leading up to it. Last month at the NAACP's annual meeting in Washington, Mfume and NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond accused Bush of "sharply dividing" the nation instead of uniting it as he has vowed to do.

After reading the comments in The Sun, Armey sent a letter to Mfume accusing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of "racial McCarthyism or reverse race-baiting."

Yesterday, Armey and Mfume found some common ground. They said they agree on a need for some type of election reform.

"I would, and in fact do have some ideas about election reform," Armey said. At the heart of the matter is "what constitutes a fair and openly successful election for all parties."

Mfume said NAACP leaders support an elections reform bill introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, "because it sort of gets us to where we are."

He called what happened in November in Florida both a "curse and a blessing."

"Now, more than any other time in our nation's history, Congress and the president are sensitive to election reform," he said.

Armey said the two might meet again, perhaps in Baltimore at NAACP headquarters. Mfume said he's aware that some people - including members of the Congressional Black Congress - questioned the wisdom of the meeting.

"Some people may, in fact, assume this meeting is not necessary, not fruitful and shouldn't take place," Mfume said. "But most people, I think, will look at this as a first step only."

In an interview later, Mfume said the meeting accomplished "a lot and a little at the same time."

"Clearly the Republican Party has a number of issues the black community does not always see eye-to-eye with," Mfume said. "This meeting was not designed to solve every problem and create a more perfect union. Whether or not it moves beyond Dick Armey and me to other leaders will be interesting."

Mfume reiterated his concerns about Bush's proposed tax cuts.

"Fifty-two percent of black kids will never benefit from tax reforms because their parents aren't in taxable brackets," he said. "And that's 54 percent for Latinos."

He also said the NAACP strongly opposes raising the retirement age, for what he said are obvious reasons: "The life expectancy for black men is 64, and it's 67 for black women."

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