Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) both appeared on a politics panel at the annual convention of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Wednesday where they discussed an on-going assault on voting rights that could affect the African- American community in the upcoming midterm elections. Controversies over voting rights and voter suppression weren’t absent from the 2012 campaign narrative. But the dialogue coming from the mainstream media, which is dominated by white voices on both sides of the question, was inevitably different from what was on display at the NAN panel. Jeffries and Rangel both had extremely harsh words for Republicans who they described as hell bent on disenfranchising black voters — rhetoric that mixed anger with hope that Republican opponents are on the losing side of history in a rapidly changing America.“We’re confronting the most significant and violent assault on voting rights since the advent of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” Jeffries began. “It’s taken different forms. That legislation was designed to deal with poll taxes, and the grandfather clauses, and the literacy tests, and now we have voter ID laws and a contraction or an end to early voting. But it’s designed to accomplish the same objective–suppress the right to vote, particularly in communities of color.”
Jeffries attributed this “assault on the electoral college” to a realization among some conservatives that their prospects are dimming due to the country’s increasingly diverse demographics.
“I believe that there are folks in this country on the extreme right wing that wake up each and every morning with diabolical intensity trying to figure out how they are going to advance their agenda in the most cold-blooded way possible,” said Jeffries. “They probably go to sleep dreaming about schemes and then wake up to try to execute it, because they’re facing a serious demographic challenge that threatens the viability of their capacity to get elected at the presidential level. In many states it’s moving forward because the amount of black and brown people in this country is increasing, the communities of color as a percentage of the electorate are increasing, the progressive ideals of young people regardless of color has increased and that’s a recipe for disaster for the other side.”
Jeffries said addressing this “assault” on African American voting rights would take a “twofold approach” from black activists and politicians. Firstly, he said activists can work to pursue a constitutional amendment to change the fact “electoral law still remains the province of the states” and, as a result, can be manipulated for partisan purposes by local officials. However, Jeffries recognized this would be a “long and difficult process.” In the meantime, the second element of the plan Jeffries recommended for African American activists was a “clear state-by-state strategy to counteract the intensity of the voter suppression efforts,” which he said was largely fueled by the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and the influence state-level Republicans were then able to exert on the House through the decennial redistricting process that took place last year.
“Part of the difficulty with the landscape we face right now is because the Tea Party wave–I know there’s cameras here, so I’m going to try to be kind, but they really are in need of some adult supervision the Tea Party,” Jeffries said. “Part of the problem is that they came in in a redistricting year, the worst possible time in a ten year cycle for that Tea Party wave to occur and so, as a result, in 2011 after those midterm elections were concluded, there were 180 voter suppression type laws introduced in 41 states. And unless we take those state legislatures back, those governor’s mansions back, we’re going to continue to see the type of violent assault that we’ve witnessed over the last couple of years.”
Along with various “voter suppression” laws, Jeffries said the Tea Party influence on state governments and redistricting was fueling the Republican House majority. As evidence of this, he cited election results in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“Democrats in Congress won a majority of the vote of the American people in this last election. … But because of the redistricting that took place after the midterm elections, the GOP maintained control of the House of Representatives. And two states illustrate this problem,” said Jeffries. “The great State of Ohio … Barack Obama won Ohio. Sherrod Brown, a progressive senator, won Ohio. And yet, in the same cycle, sixteen members of the congressional delegation in Ohio, twelve are Republicans. Same cycle, twelve Republicans four Democrats because of redistricting. In Pennsylvania, Barack Obama won the state. Bob Casey Jr., the senator, won the state comfortably. Same cycle, eighteen members of the congressional delegation, thirteen Republican, five Democratic. There was a lot of damage that was done in 2010 and the only way to rectify it in the short term is a clear state by state strategy to deal with the voter suppression that is taking place.”
Like Jeffries, Rangel accused Republicans of trying to prevent minorities from voting. But he doesn’t believe the this strategy would ultimately yield victories for conservatives. In fact, Rangel suggested failing to embrace diversity could lead to the demise of the GOP.
“The Republican Party is on a self-destructive mission. When we got rid of the Dixiecrats, they joined the Republican Party. When we had moderate Republicans in the State of New York, they chased them out,” Rangel said. “They are prepared to destroy their country to keep their base. They know that they are going out of business. They have had their last presidential campaign as we know it, so they’re doing two things; stop people who don’t look like them from coming into the country, don’t let those who got in vote. And those people who think like we do, do all you can do in the state level to prevent them from coming to the polls.”
Rangel and Jeffries come from opposite ends of the spectrum of African American political leadership–Jeffries is a rising freshman congressional star and Rangel is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and the second senior most member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Seeing black leaders from two different generations share such a negative view of the GOP should dismay the Republican operatives who just drafted a $10 million outreach plan for the party to connect with minority communities. Indeed, Rangel was completely dismissive when TPM asked if he thought the plan might be able to succeed.
“They got $10 million, that’s a congressional campaign by itself and that’s all. They don’t even know where to start,” said Rangel. “Certainly by saying they set aside $10 million, that’s not a way to organize any given community. As a matter of fact, it’s insulting. … For the Republicans to say, ‘I have a pot full of money to attract voters.’ It sounds to me close to being criminal.”
Jeffries was more charitable in his assessment.
“It’s a good thing if the GOP is genuine in its efforts to reach out to communities of color all across the country to broaden their tent,” Jeffries said. “Hopefully, it’s an effort that is rooted in a real desire to connect with the African American, Latino, and Asian communities in a meaningful substantive way.”
Given the harsh words he had for the Republican Party in the panel discussion, TPM asked Jeffries if he thought there was any chance the outreach effort would be genuine.
“Well, the GOP is the party of Lincoln,” he said. “Hopefully, at the end of the day, they’ll return to some of the principles that Lincoln espoused on behalf of all Americans.”