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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."

In the mid-1990s, as Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Democrat Marty Meehan of Massachusetts began offering their first campaign finance reform efforts, an outside-the-district contribution limit was one of their central tenets. But as Shays and Meehan's googoo ideals morphed into legislative realpolitik, they realized pretty quickly that Democrats would never support their efforts if they clung to that provision, because so many black members of Congress considered such money essential to their survival. During the House debate on Shays-Meehan in July 1998, Meehan admitted that the bill would die if it included an amendment limiting contributions from outsiders in congressional campaigns. Shays later told me that the concept was one that he "could support. I get 96-plus percent of my money from in-state. But urban members don't get 50 percent of their contributions from within state."

Indeed, Reps. McKinney, Hilliard, and Johnson all voted in 1998 against an amendment that would require 50 percent of a candidate's cash to come from "local individual residents." They did so again in September 1999, when the same proposal came up for a vote and was defeated again. "Let us be very clear," Rep. Barney Frank said at the time. "Money and ethnicity are sometimes correlated. And if we now tell African-American candidates in the South...that the money has to be raised in-state, we are putting minority candidates at a significant disadvantage. Because we know as a fact that wealth is not equally distributed, and we put ethnic minority candidates at a disadvantage." Urging a no vote, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, an African American from Ohio, suggested that a "commission be appointed to study the impact this provision would have on the ability of Members to raise sufficient funds when they represent low-income, border, and minority districts."

A senior Senate staffer who spent much of the 1990s working on getting campaign finance reform passed says that members of the Congressional Black Caucus were "always very vocal that they had to have the ability to raise money not only from outside their district but outside their state. It wasn't just the CBC members, but they were the loudest voices." Headed to New York City and Los Angeles, these Democrats "are looking for liberal Democratic money, and in many cases that is Jewish." The issue wasn't even much mentioned when the House and Senate took up the cause of the bills in the past year. It was a non-starter.

Since the New Deal, Jews have voted for Democrats in presidential and congressional races at a rate of roughly 80 percent. One Democratic operative slams Johnson's remarks since so many members of the CBC, "especially the old guard" like Reps. Charles Rangel of New York and John Lewis of Georgia, have decades-long ties "with the Jewish community" and "lean heavily on the Jewish community" for money.

"When 'Jewish money' flooded in to [New York congressman] Major Owens, who had never had any success fund-raising, when he faced a tough primary in 2000 against a Caribbean-American city councilman, I didn't hear a lot of people complaining," the Democratic congressman says. "He was supported by like-minded Democrats, but believe me they weren't all from East Flatbush and Brownsville."

No one keeps exact public tabs on such a thing--and money thankfully doesn't come with special earmarks delineating a contributor's race or religion--but knowledgeable insiders speculate that at least half of the individual contributions made to the Democratic party, and a third of those to the Republicans, come from Jews. Those numbers may be overstated--and they don't take PAC, corporate, or union largesse into account--but certainly Jews give political money and vote in numbers disproportionate to their share of the population. And much of this money is going to black candidates. In fact, Artur Davis and Denise Majette were just following a tried-and-true script. One followed, it might be observed, by most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus now griping about McKinney's defeat, like Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson.

"I was upset by her remarks," notes one Jewish contributor who does not live in Texas and who has given generously to Johnson in the past. "I like Eddie a lot; she's a very nice person. But the comments were inappropriate." No one would ever criticize an African American who decided "he wanted to defeat a white candidate who had said inflammatory things about the aspirations of African Americans or Africans," as this man feels McKinney did about Jews and Israelis.

The donor says he even thought about giving Johnson a call, talking to her about her remarks, but then he realized his opinion would probably be superfluous. "Eddie has lots of Jewish friends," he says. "She doesn't need me to say anything."

Jake Tapper is a reporter and commentator in New York City.