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Press Release - Congressional Black Caucus

Congressman Watt Elected to Be Chair of the CBC

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December 13, 2004

Yesterday, the Congressional Black Caucus elected its new leadership team for the 109th Congress which begins in January 2005. Below are two articles about Congressman Mel Watt, the Congressional Black Caucus Chairman for the 109th Congress.

N.C. Democrat picked as Congressional Black Caucus Chairman

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., was chosen unanimously on Monday to lead the Congressional Black Caucus for the next two years, and he's a good bet to emerge as the country's top black critic of the Bush administration.

With the recent departures of two high-profile civil rights leaders - the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume and Fred Shuttlesworth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - Watt will be expected to fill the black leadership void at a time when President Bush and congressional Republicans will push a conservative agenda that includes nominating federal judges and pushing permanent tax cuts favoring the wealthy.

"When you have Bush in the White House claiming that he has a mandate for more conservative policies, you've got to have a force going against that," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the caucus's leader for the last two years. "The most logical people to do that would be the Congressional Black Caucus."

Watt is taking over at a good time for the all-Democratic group, whose membership will grow from 39 to 43 when the new Congress convenes in January. For the first time in a long time, it will include a black senator - Barack Obama of Illinois - among its ranks.

The CBC, formed in 1969, works to present a united front among African-American lawmakers and typically favors stronger civil rights enforcement and social-welfare programs that provide government assistance to underprivileged Americans.

At a news conference, Watt sounded more like a peacemaker than a fighter, saying he planned to reach out to the president and invite him to meet regularly with the caucus. He even had nice, though tentative, words for Alberto Gonzales, Bush's nominee to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general - and as the country's chief protector of civil rights.

Based on Gonzales' record as a judge in Texas, Watt said, "There is hope that he could be an excellent or a good or a ... well, I don't see how he could be any worse than the last one. Let me put it that way."

Despite that olive branch, peace isn't likely to last long. Watt is an unapologetic liberal who rarely sided with Bush during the last four years. He voted against the Iraq war and was one of 66 House members to oppose the Patriot Act, which stiffened law enforcement in the name of fighting terrorism at the expense of some civil liberties.

In six terms, Watt, 59, has often been on the lonely side of lopsided votes. He favors abortion rights and opposes the death penalty.

Even conservative House Republicans give Watt, a Yale Law School grad who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, high marks for his lawyerly intelligence and principled stands. They are quick to add, though, that their voting records are "light years away" from Watt's, in the words of Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who plays tennis with Watt.

Watt said it's too early to say where he wants to lead the Congressional Black Caucus. He'll spell that out in January, when he officially takes the baton from Cummings.

The North Carolina Democrat did suggest that "anything that would be good for black America will be good for America."

Asked if he agreed with Democrats who suggest that the party must move to the right following Bush's re-election, Watt said he'd prefer to energize the party's still-loyal base, which includes African-Americans.

(Funk reports for The Charlotte Observer.)

Congressman Watt steps into limelight as head of Congressional Black Caucus

Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Before he ever got involved in electoral politics, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt was a behind-the-scenes operator - the man who ran Harvey Gantt's hard-fought 1990 U.S. Senate campaign against Jesse Helms.

That background - and a smooth-as-silk demeanor - have meant Watt has never had to raise his voice to gain the attention of supporters and critics.

Now, the Charlotte Democrat is stepping into the limelight on his own terms, elected unanimously by his peers Monday to head the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus for the next two years.

Watt's selection will make him a regular guest on cable news channels and the network news as a leading voice of national black political power. Over the past four years, the black caucus has repeatedly clashed with the Bush White House and Republican Congressional leaders.

Watt said his top priorities are improving education, health care and employment opportunities for minorities.

"It's a humbling task, but I do it with the confidence that comes from the support of the 43 members of the caucus," he said in a telephone interview Monday. "I'm not afraid of the task. It can be overwhelming, but it can be done."

Watt opposed the war in Iraq, and his statement against it became official policy of the black caucus.

Earlier this year, when independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Watt of using an "obscene epithet" while trying to persuade Nader to drop out of the race during a meeting with the caucus, it was a rare case of Watt's mouth making headlines. The congressman denied Nader's accusation, calling it an "arrogant ego trip."

After a dozen years in Congress, Watt said he is ready to lead his black colleagues.

"I spent a lot of time watching and learning and now is a good time for me to do this," Watt said. "I've been around long enough to have a vision of how the job can be done and how the caucus should be led."

Watt is the only congressman North Carolina's 12th District has ever had, and for most of the time, his district's map has been more famous than its representative.

The long, skinny district stretches some 100 miles from Charlotte to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, encompassing urban areas along the Interstate 85 corridor. It has been challenged repeatedly in the courts by critics who call it a product of racial gerrymandering.

Though the 12th's boundaries have been redrawn several times, Watt has never faced serious competition for re-election. He won a seventh term last month, capturing 67 percent of the vote against Republican Ada Fisher.

Among the four newcomers in the CBC is newly elected U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Technically a nonpartisan group, the caucus includes only Democrats because there are no black Republicans in either house.

Watt, 58, was born and raised in Charlotte. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1967 with a business administration degree and holds a law degree from Yale.

Watt practiced law in Charlotte for 20 years, during which time he was politically active, but generally not as a candidate.

He served one two-year term in the state Senate in 1985-86, but he did not seek a second term, saying he would not run for office until his children had completed high school.

That day came in 1992 and Watt threw his name in the ring for the 12th District race, becoming North Carolina's second black member of Congress since the 19th century.

In the most recent congress, Watt served on the House Financial Services Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, and the House/Senate Joint Economic Committee.

He and wife Eulada have two sons, Brian and Jason, both Yale graduates. Watt is a mainstay for the Democrats in the annual congressional baseball game and was named the game's most valuable player in 1995, 1996 and 2000.

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