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Congressman Mel Watt (NC): framing gay rights for the black community

Sunday, January 16, 2005


Mel Watt (D-N.C.) with Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) at recent funeral services for Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress (Photo By Jenny Warburg)

There was a lot of interesting discussion yesterday on DKos regarding the Democratic establishment's aversion to addressing civil rights for gays in a public forum. Here are three diaries that took this topic on:

* my own: DNC petition to Bush: lay off gays
* MAJeff's Democrats discussing gay issues
* timerigger's Same-Sex Marriage w/Poll

So I went and found an interview with an actual living, breathing, elected Democrat in a Red state that knows exactly how to frame this.

Congressman Mel Watt is now the head of the Congressional Black Caucus. He's a strong liberal representative from the 12th district (Charlotte) of the Tar Heel state. He talked about the challenge of the Democrats to reach and retain the religious (and non-religious) black vote in an excellent interview in the progressive Triangle-area newspaper The Independent Weekly by Barbara Solow, Reframing the issues.

The GOP has spun this topic to their advantage and run with it, using it as a battering ram to win elections at all levels, while the Dems have sputtered and floundered or just been silent. Watt tells Dems not to avoid talking about gay issues because of their queasiness; while he's addressing this in the context of the black vote, it applies equally to voters across the board that can be convinced that civil liberties for gays are a good thing.

First of all, we allowed Republicans to say we were advocates of gay marriage rather than framing it as a personal liberty issue or standing up and saying we don't believe in it. We ran away from that; nobody wanted to talk about it, we knew it made people uncomfortable. Instead of having our community engaged in open discussion about it and moving on to other issues or seeing how it related to pocketbook issues, we let the Republicans control the message...You can't avoid these issues. For us to bury our heads in the sand and say these issues aren't to be discussed, that's just unrealistic. We need to be talking about them in our own terms and not allowing [Republicans] to define themselves as the moral arbiters of what's right and wrong.

What Democratic leadership has failed to see, even as they try to shave votes from the political center, is that the GOP has successfully done the same thing. It's dangerous to think that black voters are blindly loyal to the Democratic party because "they have no other place to go." Yeah they do, and they can also make their displeasure known by sitting out election day. Watt warns that Dems at the national level are asleep at the wheel on this.
I think they chipped off more black voters than we would have liked for them to chip off. You don't have to chip off a lot of black voters, Republicans have found over the years. Just as the Democrats have found if they chip off some of that center, you don't have to move a lot of voters but you have to move some. We haven't been able to move those voters at the center toward the Democrats. Republicans have been successful in moving some African Americans and progressives on issues of security, religion, abortion, gay marriage. Those issues move enough people or get them wavering enough that they say, 'Well, the election is too difficult. I think I'll just stay home.'

Solow's article notes that people have always wondered how the voters of North Carolina could keep sending right-wing whack job Jesse Helms to the Senate. According to Watt (in his research while running the failed Harvey Gantt campaign to unseat Helms) there also wasn't one issue that he was a proponent of where the majority of the voters actually agreed with him. People did, however, know where he stood on any issue.


Jesse Helms, with his lesbian granddaughter (and recently elected district judge in North Carolina), Jennifer Knox Helms.

I can tell you personally, having written the former Senator, his office excelled in constituent services. Letters were responded to promptly and with specificity to your concern (even if you didn't agree with him). With Helms, he realized his power to be re-elected was gained by fulfilling his state's needs and communicating effectively on a personal level. That level of communication, infused with southern gentility, goes over well here, and will continue to do so.

The lesson is that reaching people on any issue, including gay rights, is more than putting out a persuasive argument -- your position needs to reach people in a context they can personally relate to. The Democratic Party has failed tremendously on this front because of its silence when it comes to gay issues. See my blog entry on the lame DNC petition that attempts to chastise Bush and the GOP on this topic.

Watt's wisdom on the semantics of using the term "civil rights" is meaningful when discussing gay rights with the religious black community. You can discuss the topic in the black community without hitting the GOP-defined third rail of religion and morality.
I never really talk about it in civil rights terms. I talk about it in civil liberties terms, respecting the individual. It's really a personal freedom issue more than a civil rights issue. It's the ability of a person to be who he or she is.... I have cautioned gay groups not to talk about it that way to black people. Black people tend to think of that as the right to vote and have jobs and things they have fought for over the years. I don't want to get into an argument about whether this is a civil right, human right or individual right. It's, Do you believe an individual has a right to be respected?

And on winning elections, Watt brilliantly notes why it is downright stupid for the Democrats to cede the South to the GOP in a Red State/Blue state strategy, rather than engage with the enemy on difficult issues.
The unfortunate consequence of dividing red and blue states is that in many of the states that have typically gone to the Republican Party, while white Americans are in the majority, there are substantial minorities of African Americans in all of those states. Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina--all of those states have significant minority populations. When you concede a state, you are doing two things. First, you're conceding that African Americans are not going to have any input into the presidential selection, at least at the Electoral College level. Second, you are not getting those African Americans mobilized in ways that can affect other things down the ticket--statewide races, judicial elections.

In North Carolina, we are in a red state in how we've been defined on a federal level. But if you look at what happened at the state level, we have a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor--up until recently, the whole council of state was Democratic. By conceding the race at the presidential level, we have made it easier for Republicans to win further down the ticket.

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Please visit and link to the The Independent Weekly web site for the rest of this important Barbara Solow interview.

I have a Daily Kos diary up on this.