Rep. Marcia L. Fudge didn’t sugarcoat her feelings about the fact that President Obama has not yet chosen any African Americans to fill high-level positions in his second term.
“The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity,” the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Obama this month. “Their ire is compounded by the overwhelming support you’ve received from the African-American community.”
The letter’s tone is an example of the hard-charging style of Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, and signals a shift in how the 43-member caucus of African American Senate and House members will approach the nation’s first African American president in his second term.
“I’m a very direct person just generally,” Fudge said in an interview. “I don’t use a lot of words unnecessarily. I try to get to the heart of the issue, address it and go on to the next thing.”
Fudge hopes to give the CBC a “bigger voice” beyond Congress to press an agenda that includes improving economic conditions for African Americans, preserving and improving voting rights laws, and seeking a balanced change in the country’s immigration laws.
“I believe we can be stronger, more visible, but I also think we can be more effective if we take our positions beyond Capitol Hill,” Fudge said of the caucus. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that we’re not some group that’s so way out that we can’t fit in the mainstream. We are very mainstream, and I want that message to be told.”
Over the past four years, many CBC members held their tongues, quietly grumbled, or delicately expressed frustration about a seeming inability to get their message to Obama.
They contend that the president was inattentive to a number of issues impacting African Americans, especially an unemployment rate nearly twice the nation’s overall jobless rate.
Their frustration is amplified by the amount of time it has been since the caucus has met with the president — it will be two years on May 12. Obama met with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in January and proclaimed revamping immigration laws a top legislative priority. Fudge said she expects the countdown to end soon, though she doesn’t have a meeting date from the White House yet.
“I would advise people to get used to a very candid and thoughtful conversation from Marcia Fudge,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who served as caucus chairman in the previous Congress and admitted to taking a softer approach in dealing with the Obama White House.
Asked to list Fudge’s attributes, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democratic CBC member from Georgia, reeled off “impatience, fire, passion on issues of concern not just to African Americans but to all working people.”
Fudge said she hasn’t received a direct reply from Obama to the letter in which she also expressed disappointment that the White House hasn’t considered “a number of qualified candidates” recommended by the CBC for administration jobs over the past four years.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters soon after Fudge’s letter that Obama “is committed to diversity” and “believes that having a diverse Cabinet and a diverse set of advisers enhances the decision-making process for him and any president.”
Since then, Fudge said she’s had “good conversations” with White House officials about the issue.
“I think once we got beyond our own corners, we found that there were some things that we can do to work together, and I look forward to it,” she said. “It is still my expectation that there will be some people of color, particularly African Americans, in this administration this term. . . . I think we’re on the same page.”
Coincidentally or not, the names of two North Carolina African American elected officials have recently surfaced as potential hires for the administration: Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx (D) for transportation secretary and Rep. Mel Watt (D) to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Not everyone in the CBC agrees that the makeup of Obama’s second-term Cabinet is a big deal.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) told the Daily Beast that he believes the White House is responsive and noted that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. remains in the Cabinet. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is another high-profile African American holdover.
Fudge, 60, said she understands the expectations and pressures put on Obama that comes with being a “first.” From 2000 to 2008, she served as the first African American and female mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, a mostly African American, middle-class suburb of Cleveland.
“I clearly understand the pressures,” Fudge said. “That is why I want to take some of the responsibility off of him [Obama] for speaking for poor and minority communities.”