Clueless like a fox?

February 01, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- While courageous American troops and Iraqi civilians risk life and limb for the right to vote in war-torn Iraq, President Bush has made the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, currently all Democrats, more than a little nervous about how much he values voting rights back home.

According to witnesses at a private meeting in the White House Cabinet Room last week, the president was characteristically cordial yet remarkably noncommittal in responding to a wide range of questions, mostly about racial disparities concerning such issues as employment, education, health care and legal rights.

But the most "mind-boggling moment," in the words of Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver came after Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., of Illinois, asked the president, "Do we have your support in extending and strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it comes up for renewal in 2007?"

The president responded, according to witnesses, in a way that made caucus jaws drop: He did not know enough about that particular law to respond to it, he said, and that he would deal with the legislation when it comes up.

The black legislators were largely not pleased.

Former caucus chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, of Baltimore, recalled, "I was shocked. I thought he was going to say that [renewing the law] is something that we need to do to make sure everyone's right to vote is guaranteed -- especially when he has been saying so much about freedom and liberty in the rest of the world."

The president should not have to recall episodes like the 1964 deaths of three voting-rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., or the state trooper attack on voting-rights marchers in Selma, Ala., in 1965, to think of the law those events helped to create. He need only remember the court disputes over ballot access in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio this past November.

Yet, as Georgia Rep. John Lewis has noted, the Voting Rights Act has put black voter empowerment in something of a trick bag in recent years, building black representation while weakening the Democratic Party, the party that black voters tend to support by about a 9-1 ratio.

Section 5, the part of the act that is set to expire in 2007, prohibits "retrogression," any change in district boundaries that would diminish a district's percentage of black voters. In past decades, white Republicans and black Democrats in state legislatures have gotten together to redraw districts that round up black voters and other liberals, leaving other districts more white and more politically to the right.

The Republicans' big reward for this tactic came in 1994 when they took control of the House. As a result, black Democrats have gained seats in Congress but their party has lost power as conservative Republicans have gained a majority.

That's why Mr. Lewis and some other broad-minded Democrats have taken a second look at districts that have a high concentration of minority voters and are actually backing some plans that call for their dilution. After all, it has been shown that, even in the South, white voters will support black candidates who campaign well on shared interests.

Mr. Bush is right to think that he has time to make up his mind on whether to extend Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. It's not just the history of civil rights that he has to consider, but also the future of his party.

Once fully briefed on it, I predict that Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans will gladly renew Section 5. Defending minority voting rights makes a lot of sense, especially when it helps you keep your majority.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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