By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2008
CLEVELAND -- Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones doesn't care to be lectured about her choice in the Democratic presidential race.
The 58-year-old congresswoman from Ohio has emerged as one of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's most outspoken black supporters, the rare African American politician willing to publicly question Sen. Barack Obama's readiness for the White House.
Tubbs Jones has picked apart his record in campaign conference calls and lambasted the "Harvard arrogance" of Obama backers who have demanded that African American leaders fall in behind the senator from Illinois in his quest to become the nation's first black president.
While Obama's candidacy has often united blacks and whites at the ballot box, it has driven a wedge through the black political establishment, exposing a rift between a new generation, whose members see their political horizons as limitless, and their predecessors, who have struggled to establish a following outside of heavily African American areas.
Tubbs Jones is pushing back hard against the kind of pressure that has come down on Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) and other black Democratic superdelegates who are being pressed to back Obama's candidacy.
"I say shame on anyone who's engaged in that conduct, to put that kind of pressure on John Lewis," Tubbs Jones said. "I'm not trying to be a martyr. I think Senator Clinton is the best candidate. And the beauty of the United States of America is you have the right to have your opinion, and I have the right to my opinion."
"I'm not going to succumb to that kind of pressure," she added. "If I change my mind, it will be because Senator Clinton said, 'Stephanie, let's make a move.' "
Superdelegates, a collection of 796 officeholders and party leaders, will make up about a fifth of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in August. Unlike "pledged" delegates, they are free to support any candidate they like, and this year they are under increasing pressure to reject the role of kingmaker.
Some have already gotten the message. Until last week, Lewis was one of Clinton's most prominent black supporters, an icon from the civil rights movement whose endorsement last fall was a major coup, underscoring the strong bonds between the Clintons and many African American leaders.
Lewis described his defection as more anguishing than his decision to lead the "Bloody Sunday" march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., when he was nearly beaten to death. In a statement issued last week, he explained that he viewed Obama's campaign as "the beginning of a new movement in American political history" and that he wanted "to be on the side of the people."
Before his switch, Lewis came under strong pressure from Obama allies in the Congressional Black Caucus, including Reps. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.) and Artur Davis (Ala.), and from a burgeoning movement of black bloggers and activists who believe that some of their elders -- even a legend like Lewis -- have grown too comfortable and out of touch. He also drew a primary challenge from the Rev. Markel Hutchins, an Atlanta activist who attacked Lewis for going against the will of his constituents.
"The attitude is, 'I've been here, I've earned this right, leave me alone -- I get to do what I want.' Well, that's just not true," said James Rucker, founder of ColorOfChange.org, a 400,000-member group seeking to shake up the African American political status quo.
Rucker's group launched a petition drive last week to pressure Tubbs Jones and her pro-Clinton black caucus colleagues to support Obama as superdelegates at the convention. The signature tally was up to 18,000 late last week. "It will take courage and conviction for CBC members to break with back-room politics and stand up for democracy. But we must demand it," the pledge card reads.
Black House members "should reflect and ratify, not nullify, the will of the people," Jackson said. "As the nation goes, so should the superdelegates. They should be accountable."
His father, Jesse L. Jackson Sr., noted some similarities with his 1984 presidential race, when many black lawmakers backed Walter F. Mondale. But Jackson Jr. said the debate is a sign that the African American political community is maturing.
"Of course it is shaking things up, but I don't see that as so negative," he said. "This is all the democratic process, and it's healthy. And I think the tone of it is healthy."
Tubbs Jones insists that the pressure will not move her. "Part of my job is to recommend candidates to my constituents," she said. "If they chose to reject me based on my endorsement of Hillary Clinton, so be it. But they know and I know that I've represented them well."
Cleveland has long been in the vanguard of black political success. In 1967, its voters elected Carl Stokes as the country's first black big-city mayor. His brother, Louis, served as Ohio's first black House member.
Tubbs Jones, chairman of the House ethics committee, was one of five African American members to gain such posts after Democrats won control of the House in 2006. In 2003, she won a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee after agitating about its lack of black female members.
Tubbs Jones says she has a long relationship with Clinton, forged through shared interests in health care, education and other policy issues. "I've worked with her, and been around her, when President Clinton was president. It is a wonderful, wonderful friendship," she said.
But critics question whether Tubbs Jones is placing too great a value on her Clinton ties. "This is really a problem that's been revealed by this election," said Hutchins, the Atlanta activist. "This kind of loyalism and political indebtedness has stifled our communities. And we're going to see other next-generation civic-minded leaders rise to the occasion and heed Senator Obama's call for change."
Tubbs Jones is probably safe in her seat for at least two years, as she will not face a significant challenge in Tuesday's primary. Yet the murmurings have begun. "There are a lot of people who are disagreeing with her and who are not happy with her," said Ohio state Sen. Shirley Smith, an Obama backer.
Some of Tubbs Jones's longtime supporters said they respect her choice. "As high a regard as people have for Stephanie, I'll think they'll understand," said high school principal Cassandra Johnson as she was leaving an Obama town hall meeting in the Cleveland suburbs. "If we're all about what he was just saying," Johnson said, gesturing behind her to Obama as he worked the rope line, "then it shouldn't be about race."
Louis Stokes, who retired from the House in 1998, recalled an earlier era when "black elected officials stayed with white candidates and worked with white candidates, and it never created a problem."
"But we were grooming the black electorate that we have to believe that if you go to school, et cetera, you can one day be president of the United States," he said, adding that Obama's candidacy "has stirred the pot all over the country" with its potential to fulfill that promise.
Tubbs Jones, Stokes said, "felt a commitment to keep her word. It has to be your bond, and she has explained that forthrightly and upfront."
But after the primary, and assuming Obama sweeps her district, as he has every other black district, she will enter rockier waters, just as Lewis did, he predicts. "Since your constituents have now spoken, what do you as a superdelegate do? Follow the dictate of your district? At that point, I think she faces a different decision."