In my last post, I discussed the tightrope that African-American public officials must walk in assuring that the economic stimulus package and overall federal budget meet the needs of the African-American community.
A couple of stories in the Los Angeles Times demonstrate how perilous that can be. First, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-CA, is under attack because she joined Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. John Kerry in asking the Bush administration Treasury Dept. to meet with black-owned banks so they could have access to the Troubled Asset Recovery Program last year. Her husband was a board member of OneUnited Bank, the Massachusetts-based bank that acquired other institutions in Florida and California towards building a national financial institution. Some Bush Administration officials are complaining that they didn’t know she had a family member involved in one of the banks.
Waters is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, but Frank is the chair and the author of the legislation. Anyone who thinks Treasury arranged the meeting because of Waters, instead of Frank or Kerry, chair of the Senate Small Business Committee, is not in touch with reality.
However, any African-American public official has to know that any opportunity for a story about stuffing dollar bills inside a dress, as occurred with a state senator in Massachusetts, or placing $90,000 in a freezer, which cost indicted former Rep. William Jefferson his seat, or a salacious text message, which landed former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is just an e-mail or intercepted phone call away.
A couple of days earlier, the L.A. Times wrote about the head of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in San Francisco paying himself a six-figure salary and using his home as the office for the organization while receiving hundreds of thousands from firms seeking the organization’s political support.
There is an effort to intimidate black public officials from seizing the transformative opportunity provided by the stimulus package to integrate their constituencies into the national and global economy.
However, the Achilles heel is that an old way of thinking, from officials for whom elective office might be their only way to create wealth, that just taking care of a few folks, including themselves, is good enough.
Part of the reason that President Obama can distance himself from the black community when it suits him is that he has built a base that allows him to be policy and constituency independent in general. It starts with an understanding that he and his family can succeed whether he is in office or not.
Paradoxically, he has raised more money than any other black politician in history precisely because it was perceived he couldn’t be bought.
The old power broker politics of a few well-connected folks sliding up to elected officials will bring more such stories, unless state and local and Congressional leaders take more cues from the President, opening up broad public discussions on priorities and strategies and being transparent. When you are used to getting re-elected without opposition, it may be hard to change.
But those regular people have something to offer. As William Jefferson found, if not nurtured and respected, their support can go elsewhere.