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Thoughts on a Week of Open Disrespect Towards Black Public Officials
As troubling as chaos and disarray in government last week was the public imagination's continued inability and refusal to see Black people in charge of anything
As the public watched with a mix of astonishment, humor and anxiety at the dysfunction unfolding in the U.S. House of Representatives, few seem unbothered by the public’s open dismissal of the thought that House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) could have also been a perfect choice for Speaker. The possibility never seemed to register in the public imagination, despite this …
Through several days and 14 ballots, Jeffries maintained a consistent 212 votes; there was only one ballot - the 12th - where Rep. David Trone (D-MD) missed voting for his party leader due to surgery that day. Yet, despite that, as infamous American public impatience grew, we began hearing pleas for Democrats to jump ship and to either vote for Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) or to support a “moderate” Republican in an effort to restore order to the House. The onus or responsibility of restoring order wasn’t placed on the Republicans who were creating the chaotic situation, but it was instead placed upon Democrats who were unanimously telling the American public who was clearly ready to become Speaker. Jeffries was supposed to succumb to those pleas and, to his credit, he did not.
There is no rule that the House Speaker must come from the party that has the majority of seats in the House. The Speaker is the person who, simply, gains the most votes. Jeffries, who is Black, clearly accomplished this up until the 12th ballot, yet we were assaulted by calls - even from some on the “left” - to pick a White “moderate” or “centrist” Republican, such as what appeared in The Guardian from former Clinton era Labor Secretary and economist Robert Reich …
There’s an alternative, and House Democrats and the few remaining “moderate” Republicans should take it: come together to make someone like Michigan’s moderate Republican Fred Upton or Ohio’s David Joyce the speaker of the House.
There’s no rule that says the party in control of the House must decide on the speaker by themselves. All anyone needs to be speaker is 218 votes (or a majority of all members present), regardless of party.
House Democrats and moderate Republicans could come up with the 218 votes to put Upton or Joyce over the top.
The possibility of a Black Speaker didn’t even enter Reich’s mind, nor was it being considered by others as a possibility. No one was really writing opeds pleading for six or seven “moderate” Republicans to do the right, principled and responsible thing by voting for the person who was sitting there the whole time ready to serve as Speaker. That would’ve resolved everything. So, why didn’t they? Because he’s Black … and, before anyone mentions the few moments Black Republican Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) was receiving nearly two dozen gaslighting votes from his openly racist caucus, Jeffries wasn’t voted in as the obvious choice for Speaker because he’s unapologetically Black and actually gives a damn about issues important to Black people.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania …
In Pennsylvania’s state Capitol of Harrisburg, we saw a similar drama play out in the battle for state House Speaker there where Philadelphia-area Representative and Democratic caucus leader Joanna McClinton was preparing to take over as the Commonwealth’s first Black woman House Speaker. That was supposed to happen after Democrats engineered a stunning route of state Republicans in November, retaking the House by one seat.
However, three very immediate vacancies - that state Democrats just thought Republicans wouldn’t notice - reduced the Democratic majority from 102-101 down to 99-101. McClinton was hoping to simply keep an asterisk on that until a special election happened for those three seats on February 7th. Her White (primarily male) colleagues has another thought: from out of nowhere, Berks County, PA Democrat Mark Rozzi was presented as an alternative compromise House Speaker Republicans could accept, and overnight he changed his status to Independent and was selected (over McClinton) as Pennsylvania’s new House Speaker.
That was a clear slight to McClinton, a Black woman. Also detestable was how neither her state party leadership or the three vacating Pittsburgh-area Democratic state Representatives thought of succession plans when knowing it was very likely they weren’t going to be around for too long after November 8th. This was the case for PA Rep. Tony DeLuca, who died suddenly in October from a battle with cancer, and PA Rep. Summer Lee (who knew she was on her way to Congress) and PA Austin Davis (who knew he was on his way to being Lt. Governor). No one thought about the consequences, with the latter two being so self-absorbed they couldn’t come up with pass-the-baton plans to help their sister Black Caucus Member and party leader out.
It Didn’t Stop There …
Pennsylvania, also, had an acting Secretary of State in Leigh Chapman, a Black woman picked to serve as the Commonwealth’s top election official. However, upon being elected as the state’s next governor, incoming state executive Josh Shapiro couldn’t wait to announce his nomination of former Philadelphia City Commissioner (elections official) Al Schmidt as the new Secretary of State.
No one is questioning the courage of Schmidt as he valiantly pushed back against efforts by Trump’s minions and Pennsylvania Republicans to delegitimize Philadelphia votes after the 2020 Presidential election. But, how does it look that the incoming White Governor ousts a Black woman from the top elections position - especially a woman who is from the population most targeted by voter suppression and election denialism - in favor of the appointment of a White man who is a Republican, the party that is currently destroying the right to vote and keeps attempting to overthrow the legitimate government?
Black public and elected officials, as abundant as they have become right now, must also call out the public disrespect of their status as important policymakers. It’s not enough anymore to simply be Black and be selected or elected to serve in honored or influential positions. Times are urgent and gains made just over the past 60 years are evaporating while white nationalists are steadily, almost daily, engineering plots to overthrow governments and to strip us of not only voting rights, but rights encased in the very critical Reconstruction Acts in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution. We need respected transformational change agents in the here and now. Not people being elected as historic “firsts” who are asking us to pick their headshot …