A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME
My return to D.C. in 1974 to meet with Congressman Gus Hawkins and talk about a job, was very unlike my arrival there in 1949, 25 years earlier, when I came to enroll in the Mecca, Howard University. This time, the U.S. Capitol wasn’t just a landmark; it was my likely place of employment. I carried a briefcase, not a suitcase. There was one taxicab line at Union Station, not two segregated ones – and the dispatcher was Black. The mayor, Walter Washington, was a Black man. A college friend had told me that, within the Black community, the District of Columbia was now called Chocolate City, majority Black. She was right.
I naively thought that the Rayburn House Office Building, the site of Congressman Hawkins’ office (staff never called him “Gus”), was a typical office building. No. It is a granite behemoth of a building, occupying the equivalent of four city blocks across the street from the U.S. Capitol. The Capitol Police, courteous as always, directed me to the Congressman’s office, where his staff greeted me warmly, and I sensed that I was expected.
Congressman Hawkins was soft-spoken, not a physically imposing person, and Black but very fair–complexioned. More on that later. I was prepared to tell him about myself, but he had apparently checked me out with his contacts beforehand and quickly came to the point. He had a lot of work that needed doing, right away.
The Congressman was up against the wall to begin oversight hearings on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), legislation on juvenile justice reform, and garnering support for his full–employment legislation with Senator Hubert Humphrey.
The EEOC, chaired by my college classmate, John Powell, a Republican, was under attack by public and private civil rights groups for its serious backlog of processing employment discrimination cases. As for juvenile justice, it had always been near and dear to the Congressman’s heart. He’d been a juvenile probation officer in his youth.
All of this was in the context of Congressman Hawkins having represented an impoverished South Central Los Angeles Congressional district for almost 40 years, first on the state level and now at the federal level. Impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon were underway, and Congressman Hawkins had introduced the first Bill of Impeachment against him. When I arrived in D.C. that morning, I had no idea of the extent to which I was about to be in the vortex of American history.
I was overwhelmed and humbled, but undaunted. This was my opportunity to make a lasting national impact on matters dear to me. I thought about the institutional racism that impacted many of my juvenile clients earlier in my social work career. About the kid who was sent to a reform school for protecting his mom. About John who ended up killing Michael Farmer. And about Michael Farmer, too.
Yes. I accepted the position. But he wanted me on the job in just two weeks. What!?
Gloria, my then-wife, was ready for a change and agreed that I should accept the job. For a time, I would go to D.C., work, and return home on weekends. She and the children would stay in Brooklyn to sell our home and to allow the kids to finish the school year. Scott, age 11, was eager to leave; he hated having to clean up an inconsiderate neighbor’s dog poop from our sidewalk. Alison, age 8, freaked out, crying and screaming that she didn’t want to leave her friends.
Columbia University’s president, to my pleasant surprise, authorized six month’s severance pay from the Urban Center, enough when coupled with my Congressional salary, to maintain two households. Congressman Hawkins’ staff found a studio apartment for me within easy walking distance of my new office.
THE “PEOPLE’S HOUSE”
I quickly became immersed in the life of the U.S. House of Representatives. My first order of business was to organize the EEOC oversight hearings, in coordination with our Republican minority. We often disagreed on important matters, but Democrats and Republicans were joined by mutual respect, integrity, and a genuine affection for the institution.
I learned that John, the EEOC chair and my former classmate, was bright, but as arrogant in his chairmanship as he had been as a Howard undergraduate. He had made extravagant and expensive office alterations. With his autocratic manner, he had alienated himself from his fellow commissioners, from senior commission staff, and from the civil rights legislative community. Many were calling for his removal.
The EEOC hearings didn’t got go well for John. Even Republican support was muted. As a courtesy after a hearing, witnesses were given the opportunity to review transcripts of their hearing testimony to make minor grammatical changes or syntax corrections. John wanted to virtually rewrite his entire testimony. No way could I allow him to do that.
John’s EEOC tenure really began to unravel on a winter night in 1975. My family and I were having dinner at our new home in the outer Maryland suburbs. The phone rang and Scott answered. We all could only hear a screaming, almost unintelligible voice. Scott frowned, held the phone at arm’s length, and calmly said into the receiver, “I think you want to talk to my Dad.”
It was John. He was livid. Then President Gerald Ford had asked for his resignation. John, Phi Beta Kappa and a brilliant Harvard Law grad, erroneously insisted that only the U.S. Senate, which had confirmed his presidential nomination, could remove him. Nonsense.
Try as I might, I couldn’t persuade John that it was time to fold his cards and get the best face-saving exit deal possible. Thinking politically, I reminded him that it was his core constituency, the civil rights community, that was now calling for his removal. That he, as a Republican, couldn’t expect any support from my side of the aisle. That he had become a liability to his Republican party.
Inwardly, I felt a deep sense of sadness for John and his family. Those of us who knew him, knew he was in over his head at the EEOC. Washington is a town based on relationships, and he had nurtured none. As a Black Republican – a scarcity then and now – he had been the only person available to a Republican president for the EEOC chairmanship so he got the job.
He eventually resigned and was appointed an administrative law judge in Pittsburgh, a position for which he was eminently well suited and where he served our nation with distinction until he retired on disability. The last time I saw John Powell was at our 40th Howard class reunion. He was suffering from dementia. He didn’t recognize me.
ODE TO FRENCHIE & THE GANG
Our subcommittee was arguably the most progressive one in the entire U.S. House of Representatives. Our Democratic members included Patsy Mink of Hawaii, William “Bill” Clay of St. Louis, and Shirley Chisolm of Brooklyn. The ranking Republican was William A. Steiger, a liberal Republican from Wisconsin. Bill Steiger was one of those members, unknown to the general public, whose genius, integrity, and respect for the People’s House, made a presence throughout the House. Many, myself included, saw him as a likely future president of the United States. Sadly, he died of a heart attack at age 40. What a loss to the country.
The most important part of my job was to learn how to count. I learned to count not just enough votes to get a majority, but to understand the unique concerns of each member, no matter the party, and to see whether our legislation might meet their concerns.
Once, on a long-forgotten issue, we had a majority, but Bill Steiger demurred. Gus felt that Steiger’s support was too important in the grand scheme to disregard his concerns. We conceded to his wishes in the name of bi-partisanship.
The Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDP) was relatively uncontroversial. It provided federal support for delinquency prevention programs; de-institutionalization of youthful offenders; alternatives to school suspensions for disruptive students; research opportunities, and so forth.
It passed the House overwhelmingly, but for a bit of drama. Final passage was interrupted by an “uninvited guest,” a disgruntled visitor, who, screaming gibberish, leaped from the Visitor’s Gallery to the floor of the House of Representatives. We all scrambled for cover. Our uninvited guest broke his leg, was arrested, and carried off on a stretcher. The incident was reported in a single paragraph inside the Washington Post. Today?
I quickly learned about what is often called the third branch of Congress, the House-Senate Conference; it exists to resolve any differences between the House and Senate versions of the same bill. Sen. John McClellan, a conservative Southern Democrat from Arkansas, insisted that the Justice Department, not Health and Human Services (HHS), administer the JJDP program. His political influence among conservatives of each party was so great this his opposition would kill the bill. It was his way or there would be no bill. The House yielded to Sen. McClellan. Bill Steiger voted against the bill’s final passage.
The final bill was sent to the White House for President Ford’s signature. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, on September 8, 1974, the last day possible, the president signed the JJDA into law with one caveat – he’d request no funds for its implementation. It was the same day that he pardoned the disgraced former president Richard M. Nixon. The irony has never escaped me.
Congress provided the funds and the program has been continuously operated under the U.S. Department of Justice and has been re-authorized countless times, most recently in 2015.
Lesson learned. Legislation is like a sausage. You may like the final product, but you don’t want to see how it’s made.
“SAY GOOD BYE, DICKIE”
By the time I arrived in D.C. in early 1974, impeachment proceedings against Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the U.S., were well under way and dominated the news. The impeachment hearing were underway in the House.
For me, the most important reminder of the impeachment staff’s work was the lights. My office was on the sixth floor of The Annex, across from the Rayburn building; the impeachment’s staff worked on the second floor of The Annex. I often passed our otherwise darkened office building at night. The lights were always burning in the impeachment staff’s offices.
We had some light moments. Tom Jolly, a fellow Democratic staffer, was, in fact, a jolly fellow, never at a loss for a joke. One day, Tom showed up with a couple hundred bumper stickers to pass out. We loved them. They were absolutely hilarious. We snatched them up and gave him a donation to help with the cost of printing. The bumper stickers said simply, “Say goodbye, Dickie.”
Most of us liked The Annex because, with no tourists around, it was relatively quiet with few distractions. That is, until one day returning from lunch, I found the lobby crowded with several media types, photographing a low slung four by six foot wheeled dolly, carrying countless, blue-colored, cubed boxes trimmed in gold. What’s that all about? I asked no one in particular. Answer: “The tapes.” The Nixon tapes, made inside the Oval Office, the ones that eventually led to his resignation, per order of the U.S. Supreme Court. OMG. Again, I was a witness to history.
As a senior staffer, I had access to many areas of the Capitol complex not normally open to the public. This time, I was given access to the Judiciary Committee hearing room shortly before its debate on the Articles of Impeachment. I had my NikonF3 camera and took candids of Barbara Jordani, Charlie Rangel, Liz Holtzman, and others. Off to the side was Jim Mann, a conservative South Carolina Democrat, who had just announced his decision to vote to impeach our 37th president. Such was Mann’s influence, that his vote would persuade several undecided Southern Democrats to vote for Nixon’s impeachment.That’s the day I became convinced that Nixon’s removal was not whether, but on what day.
On August 9, 1974, a few days after my 42nd birthday, like millions of others elsewhere, we listened on the radio (no C-SPAN, no cable TV) as Richard M. Nixon announced his resignation as President of the United States.
Our location in The Annex gave us the opportunity to watch his helicopter take off from the White House lawn. I felt a sense of anger and good riddance. Another staff member stood next to me and wept. I don’t know why. Never asked.
What I do know now, with the benefit of hindsight, is that unknown people – obscure Congressmen and foot soldiers far and wide — often change American history.
HERE, SIR, THE PEOPLE RULE
There’s a reason why Members of Congress almost invariably refer to the House of Representatives as the People’s House. With two-year terms, they must start running for re-election almost as soon as they take office, returning to their Congressional districts least every two weeks because all politics is local. Woe to the Member who fails to nurture his constituents. To be labeled “out of touch” can easily become “former Member of Congress.”
“WHY NOT ME?”
I got along with Congressman Hawkins but his low-key manner was in sharp contrast to Congressman Bill Clay, Sr., a younger, more progressive and quick-witted Member from St. Louis, and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In early December 1974, Congressman Clay, a member of our subcommittee, off-handedly asked me to be on the lookout for a candidate to serve as staff director of his new subcommittee. By now, I was fairly confident in my abilities, I jokingly said, “You want someone just like me, right?” That’s right, just like you.
As we parted and went our separate ways. I thought. Why like me? Why not me? Bill and I were one year apart in age. He had been active in The Movement, a union organizer, had served six months in jail, arguably as a political prisoner. He had paid his dues big time and his new subcommittee dealt with expanding the political rights of federal and postal employees. A powerful political force waiting to be unleashed.
Bill was excited when I cautiously approached him about leading his new subcommittee’s staff, and Congressman Hawkins signed off on the arrangement. On January 2, 1975, I became subcommittee staff director of the House Subcommittee on Employee Political Rights.
You may wonder whether, as the only Black subcommittee staff director or counsel in the entire House of Representatives, I ever knowingly experienced an overt racist act during my tenure there. No. Of course there were racists and institutional racism, But my principal was a Member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and important political group within the People’s House. An untoward act toward me would have serious political consequences.
Next. 24. The Hill & Career Change
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