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Other People's Money

The hypocrisy of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Sep 9, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 48 • By JAKE TAPPER
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WHEN A TV CAMERA was shoved in the face of Georgia state representative Billy McKinney on August 20--the night that his daughter, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, lost her Democratic primary race--he spewed venom like a challenged cobra. Asked about the fact that former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young had withheld his support from McKinney's campaign, he replied, "That ain't nothing. That's nothing. Jews have bought everybody. Jews." If that were somehow too subtle, McKinney spelled it out: "Jay, Eee, Double-U, Esssss," he hissed.

Billy McKinney's lip is nothing new. In 1996, after making an anti-Semitic comment, he was forced to resign from his daughter's campaign--and she's no slouch herself when it comes to asinine babbling. What's more surprising is that his sentiments, if not his language, are being echoed by black politicians who should know better.

"I've been receiving angry calls from black voters all day saying they should rally against Jewish candidates," Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas told the Miami Herald after McKinney's defeat. Johnson, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that blacks were concerned about Jews "from around the country putting millions into a race to unseat one of our leaders for expressing her right of free speech." She told the Washington Post that "at the grass roots," there is a growing perception that "Jewish people are attempting to pick our leaders."

These comments have not endeared her to some of her white colleagues. "These are still, at the end of the day, black voters who are making the decisions, and black candidates getting elected, so I guess I'm not buying the whole 'gullible' argument, that whole congressional districts can be hoodwinked," says one Democratic congressman who asked not to be named. "Frankly, that doesn't speak very highly of Ms. Johnson's perceptions of those constituents."

It certainly doesn't. But forget for a moment that Cynthia McKinney lost to an impressive candidate, African-American former judge Denise Majette, who took a full 58 percent of the vote. Ignore if you will that McKinney alienated a significant number of upwardly mobile black voters--who were embarrassed by her speculation that President Bush had allowed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon so that his father's defense industry stocks would go up. Consider instead the issue of individuals of a particular ethnic group making financial contributions to support--or defeat--a politician from another area.

Johnson, after all, is not necessarily wrong in her essential observation: Jews from around the country did give thousands of dollars to Majette, because they found McKinney offensive. In the same way, Arab and Muslim Americans from around the country gave thousands of dollars to McKinney--whom they presumably perceive as representing their interests. McKinney raised $700,000, much of it from out-of-state Arab and Muslim Americans; Majette raised $1.3 million, much of it from out-of-state Jews. This same dynamic played out earlier this year in Alabama, with a young, impressive, black former prosecutor named Artur Davis defeating another congressional Israel-basher, the ethically challenged Rep. Earl Hilliard. As the race heated up, a pro-Hilliard flyer of mysterious origin accused Davis, a Baptist, of being too close to Jews. "Mr. Davis must simply understand that Jews the world over have never come to the aid of black or dark skin [sic] people because it was the right thing to do."

But the flyer couldn't have been more wrong--at least in terms of Jewish donors all over the country coming to the aid of black or dark-skinned political candidates. Congresswoman Johnson's comments are breathtakingly hypocritical. A hardy perennial of the last decade's campaign finance reform debates was a proposal that candidates should have to raise at least half, if not more, of their funding from within their congressional districts. Time and again, Democratic congressional leaders, prodded by the Congressional Black Caucus, ensured the demise of such proposals. Why? So black candidates could continue to raise money from New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, home to the most reliable of liberal Democratic political contributors, a disproportionate number of whom are--yes, that's right--Jews.

House Speaker Tom Foley spelled it out pretty clearly in a speech at the National Press Club in September 1993, when the issue was just starting to percolate. Questioning whether "limiting contributions to within the state or inside the district" was a legitimate reform, Foley suggested that such a move "often is a great benefit to incumbents and a limitation to challengers." Foley went on to say that "women and minorities" in particular "could in many cases not have been elected without the contributions that come from concerned citizens outside that immediate district or state."