"THE NAACP counts this as a vote against minorities?" an incredulous Robert Ehrlich asked.
Ehrlich was referring to the District of Columbia student vouchers bill. It provides $7 million in vouchers for poor students in the nation's capital to attend private schools and academies of their choice. It passed in the House of Representatives on April 30. Ehrlich voted for it.
Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued its legislative report card. Ehrlich and his Maryland GOP colleagues Roscoe Bartlett and Wayne Gilchrest all received F's.
Ehrlich said his vote for the bill was, in essence, a vote for minorities and the poor. He was a poor kid who benefited from aid to private schools himself, Ehrlich said.
"It changed my life," the 2nd District congressman recalled of the help he was given to attend private school.
Ehrlich also voted for a bill that would make it easier to prosecute as adults juveniles who commit federal crimes. The NAACP opposed that bill. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, proposed an amendment to another bill that would have cut defense spending by $189.9 billion and raised revenues of $195 billion by closing corporate tax loopholes. Ehrlich voted against it. The NAACP supported it.
"We're sitting here begging for every last defense dollar we can get," Ehrlich said, adding that passage of Waters' amendment would have been against the interests of blacks in the military.
"It's been documented that the military has helped create the black middle class," Ehrlich observed. "Passing this bill would have been disastrous."
Ehrlich was speaking from his office in Washington. About 40 miles north, in his office on Mount Hope Drive in Baltimore, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume had a different take on things.
"I think that's ridiculous," Mfume said of Ehrlich's comment about the defense cuts hurting blacks in the military. "With all due respect to Bob, whom I worked with, that was spending on weapons systems and research. It doesn't affect personnel. We wouldn't support anything that affected military personnel because a large portion of the military is black and Hispanic."
The NAACP didn't oppose the juvenile crime bill, according to Mfume, just the part that would have eliminated ways to track racial discrimination in prosecution. Mfume then elaborated on the NAACP's controversial stand on school vouchers.
"The NAACP, as part of a resolution adopted last year, opposes school vouchers that use public funding," Mfume explained. "We're not in opposition to vouchers that use private money. We have appealed to foundations and corporations for money for vouchers. If public funds are used, they should be used for every child."
What's this? The liberal is sounding like a conservative, eschewing the use of public money and praising the private sector. Mfume expressed some skepticism about the voucher process.
"Who makes the determination about who gets vouchers and what happens to those excluded?" he asked. There are only "finite opportunities" to attend private schools or academies, Mfume contends (private schools don't have enough spaces for all the public school kids in D.C.), but an "infinite need" for vouchers.
Is this dispute between Ehrlich and Mfume racial in nature? Some have tried to portray it that way. Some critics of Ehrlich, Bartlett and Gilchrest -- and the other Republicans given low grades -- have stopped just short of portraying them as evil white men who can't wait to hustle blacks back onto the plantation. (They had the gall to vote for legislation that would have ended affirmative action in the Department of Transportation and in admissions in higher education.)
Those who don't get caught up in such hysterics recognize the NAACP legislative report card for what it is: politics. The NAACP agenda is mostly a liberal one (although Mfume spoke of an anti-juvenile crime project his organization has started that sounds pretty conservative. It stresses patriotism, respect for elders and other family values). Mfume and the NAACP have initiated a voter registration drive in hopes of booting out "delinquent legislators."
Liberals have that right. Indeed, it's a duty. But conservatives have an agenda and legislative report cards of their own. The way the American political system works, conservatives and liberals are supposed to boot out of office as many of the opposition as they can. Those who have turned this into a racial issue -- implying that any white person opposed to affirmative action is an incorrigible racist -- are dancing close to the line that separates opposition from demagogy.
Pub Date: 6/28/98