Rakim Brooks – Ed Baker Fellow in Democratic Values at Demos and host of “The People” on WBAI.org radio 99.5 FM NY : Posted: 02/ 2/2012 1:26 pm
This is the second interview in the Black History Month series “Perspectives on Black Politics in the Age of Obama.” It has been selectively edited for print, but the full audio will be available at wbai.org. It is being published as a joint HuffPost Politics and Black Voices project.
Clyde Williams has had a 20-year career in public service. He served in the Clinton White House as Deputy Director of Presidential Scheduling, at USDA as Deputy Chief of Staff and he worked as Domestic Policy Advisor to President William Jefferson Clinton, coordinating his post-presidential activities in Harlem. He has only recently resigned from his post as National Political Director of the Democratic National Committee, and is presently exploring a run for the United States Congress in NY-15.
Rakim Brooks (RB): The Department of Agriculture (USDA) isn’t a department that we, in communities of color, [typically] think of as being very important. We think of the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, but in the wake of the great recession, the food stamp program [has been a vital lifeline for communities of color and all struggling families]. I’m curious if you, as an African American, [appreciated] those links before you worked at USDA?
Clyde Williams (CW): I had some sense prior to [becoming Deputy chief of staff at USDA], but it became much more pronounced. [USDA] was the department that had oversight responsibility for WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), food stamps, [and the] school lunch program. When you have those kinds of programs [that] impact people’s lives [so substantially], you get a true sense of the profound importance of government.
The school lunch program [is] for some kids the only real meal they get per day. The ability to have a WIC program [that allows women to meet] the actual nutritional [needs of] their children, or the food stamps program, is a big deal because there are certain times in people’s lives when they need assistance. And there’s nothing wrong with [that]. That’s the thing that I think makes our country unique and great. We provide these bridges for people when they don’t have the ability to help themselves.
[Working at USDA] actually one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had working in government.
RB: [How did it compare with being the Political Director of the DNC?] Well first, what does the Political Director do?
CW: The political director sets the agenda on how [the Democratic Party] interfaces with all the state parties [and] elected officials [at every level] — mayors, city council members, county executives, and congressional members. My job was to help figure out how we could be helpful to them, how we continue to build state parties up, [because when] the state parties do well, typically the DNC does well.
I [also] worked with all the different constituency groups: African Americans, Latinos, Women, Asians, LGBT groups, all the different groups that are part of the DNC. It was my job to figure out how we [integrated] everybody [into the party’s governance structure]. [President] Obama, by far, was the main focus because he’s the leader of the party; he ran the party; it’s his. But you can only be as good as the people you develop and bring along with you.
RB: [Because] you were at the heart of a lot of Democratic strategy, it makes sense to ask you this next question: Does the Democratic Party neglect African Americans and [ignore their significance] in electing national and state candidates [across the country]?
CW: It’s a great question. Let me take it several ways. Governor Tim Kaine was the Chairman of the Party when I was there [and he] felt very strongly about the black vote and what black people represents. [As for other people] that were part of the party structure, I don’t want to say that they didn’t care about the black vote, but it was not their highest priority. Their highest priority was to make sure that they kept the Obama for America (OFA) infrastructure going to support the President.
I used to [advocate] for the state parties and for the constituency groups (blacks, Latinos, women, LGBT groups) because [the party structure often] didn’t see value in the state parties and the constituency groups. [Part of the reason] is that they felt like [the leadership of these groups were loyal to] the Clintons. [There was some truth to this since] the Clintons ran the party for years. But when you own the Democratic Party, you have to figure out how we bring all [of these groups] under the umbrella. There’s no doubt in my mind that the President valued the constituency groups; I know that for a fact. But the people who made the decisions, day to day, other than Governor Kaine, they [didn’t seem to value those groups] on the same level.
It was always a give and take, a push and pull, to try to get people to see [the importance of constituency groups]. And again, I don’t believe that any of these people operated with any malice. It’s just that they saw things very differently than I did and [those who agreed with me]. [We knew] that you have to engage the state parties because, when you run for re-election, you’re going to need them. Same thing with constituency groups.
Right now, there is this outcry from African Americans and from other groups because they felt [the President] didn’t embrace them on the same level, which is absolutely not true. He did. But the people who made the decisions day-to-day [didn’t] understand that, if you work these relationships now, then you won’t have to come back later and play catch up.
The Presidents shouldn’t have to worry about [maintaining relationships] with African-Americans, LGBT groups, Latinos, women. [If the party tended to those relationships] those groups would [still be strong supporters]. But a lot of people were left out of the process; the DNC did not embrace their ideas and make them apart of the process [and dissatisfaction is the result]. So I thought [the DNC’s handlings with constituency groups did] a disservice to the President, to be quite honest.
But [it’s not his fault]. He’s one of the most committed human beings I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around [and] work for. I consider him a person who cares about people in a way that most people will never get. He truly believes in this country. He believes that every constituency group is as important as the other. And he wants to see all of us do much better. And I think the policies that he has laid out have proved that. [Healthcare] is going to have a profound impact on health issues as it relates to black and brown people, women and children.
RB: [When you say] Tim Kaine and [some in] the DNC [took] black voters seriously, [what do you mean]?
CW: Tim Kaine, [as] a governor from a southern state, understands the importance of the black vote [at the state level] and he understands what the black vote means to the Democratic National Committee. [Therefore], there was always this internal struggle to try to get more resources to go to constituency groups, to go to state parties. But [when it came down to it, the DNC] put more resources towards Obama For America, and less towards the others. It was a conscious decision.
[A]s the political director, I made it abundantly clear how important I thought the constituency groups were and the state parties, and I didn’t agree with all the state parties. But I did agree that, when the time comes, we were going to need them.
But the bottom line is this, and I want to be clear, the President always showed concern for every constituency group at the DNC. The President cared about what the state parties meant to the political apparatus at the DNC. But sometimes, between the power-that-be that worked at [the DNC] and others, that message got muddled or got lost. Tim Kaine was a great Chairman; I hope he wins [his Senate race]. And as I said, the President was very well-liked among all those constituencies, but sometimes it did not translate through the pipeline.
RB: What [would] it mean for everyday black folks, those who aren’t politically involved, [if] the DNC [did] take black [political constituency groups] seriously?
CW: I think each relationship with each elected [official] and with each state is different. Part of that relationship emanates from the fact that some people ask more from the DNC than others. That is part of the dynamic. If you’re not at the table and you’re not saying that we want to be a part of something, it’s not people are coming to look for you.
Look at a state party like Ohio. [E]veryone takes [Ohio] extremely seriously because they are very well organized; they have a profound impact on turnout; the unions work with them; they organize well on the ground in their state. If other states did the same thing, then they would be taken as seriously as Ohio.
[And] Ohio takes the African American vote extremely seriously because they know they cannot win without Cleveland, Cincinnati, cities where you have a large population of African Americans. [But] a lot of this is defined by who the people are in these states and how active they are in the overall party.
[With regard to black constituency groups specifically], there is a large African American constituency at the DNC. The member that everybody would know is Donna Brazile, [but] Virgie Rollins is head of the DNC African American caucus, and, from NY State, Ralph Dawson is a DNC member. These are people who have spent a lot of time in the party. And who work tirelessly to make the party inclusive, to make sure that it’s doing the things that are necessary to do outreach to people of color, and they take it very seriously. And it’s something that I take very seriously.
RB: Have they been effective?
RB: What does that look like?
CW: Look, you don’t win every battle, but you win some. A perfect example of effectiveness right now is that, for the first time, you have an officer who has oversight over minority participation at the DNC because of concerns raised by myself and others. There was a big issue when I was there about minority contracting and the fact that it wasn’t up to par. And again, too many people in the DNC pipelines didn’t think it was a big issue. But it was a big issue. And it’s the kind of thing that should have been taken care of.
When you have a constituency that’s been as loyal to the Democratic Party as African Americans, this shouldn’t even be a discussion. In most large states, people can’t win without African Americans. Same things with Latino votes. [The DNC] should be figuring out, right now, what it is that [minority] constituencies want — and not just during the time of elections, but throughout the year. This needs to be something that is ongoing process. People should never feel like they’re disenfranchised or [not served] by the process. It shouldn’t be that way.
RB: Have [these constituencies] had increasing influence [within the party] because of the President?
CW: I think it’s attributable to a lot of things. Bill Clinton paid [significant] attention to the African American constituency in the DNC. Again, he’s a southern governor, just like Kaine, [so] he understands the importance of [the black vote]. He appointed the first and only black person to run the DNC, Ron Brown. It was a big deal for Clinton, he got it. And this President gets it too. He looks out for all the constituency groups; he knows how important they are. The 2010 election demonstrates how important they are and [what neglecting them] does to Democrats.
RB: How [does] the President [measure up against past] African American leaders? [You’ve been around a lot of them in your life.]
CW: There is no comparison. There’s never been another black person or person of color who’s been the President of the United States. Your ability to serve in that role is so much different than anything else that I don’t believe there is any [apt] comparison.
RB: Let’s end here [then]. It’s where I began my interview with Professor Tricia Rose. [University of Chicago Professor] Michael Dawson regards black politics as the ability for black people to “mobilize, to influence policy, to demand accountability from public officials and elites, and to impact public debate.”
As you move through [Congressional District 15] and begin to coordinate with the black voters in Harlem, they’re going to talk about the need for strong black institutions and the need for a strong black, as Michael Dawson and [Tricia Rose] call it, public space where black folks can conversations about “their issues and their problems.” Give me your evaluation of that approach to politics. Is that [emphasis on black solidarity] a meaningful way to understand the world and the structural forces that impact African Americans?
CW: I believe we need strong institutions and I believe we have them: Abyssinian Development Corporation [in Harlem]. The reason that I use them as an example is because here is a church organization that took it among themselves to rebuild our community. They’ve built more than $600 million of affordable low-income housing to help stabilize a community, to make sure that senior citizens and low income people have the ability to stay in a community they’ve been a part of for a very long time. They’ve taken over a second school, which means again that they’ve tried to educate people. They have job training and ministry programs to deal with those who are incarcerated. They’ve built senior citizens homes. Those are the kinds of things that I think we see when we talk about strong institutions. And so I support other entities that take that position and those kinds of ideas.
[And] from a cultural standpoint, I truly believe in the Apollo Theater. It’s a landmark institution in our community, same thing with the Studio Museum or the Schomburg Center for Cultural Research or the Dance Theatre of Harlem, these institutions that helped to define who we are. We have to figure out how we as a community help to maintain these programs.
[But fundamentally], to me, the most important thing is to figure out how you make this thing work for everybody. [W]hen you look at what you see in all [the communities in northern Manhattan], there’s been tremendous development, [but] with that growth and development there still needs to be a way to make certain that everyone participates in that system. If we don’t do something proactive, then we’ll never have the ability to dictate what happens in our community.
There are times when we have to deal with racism, but it doesn’t mean that we give up. The bottom line is that, if you don’t participate in the process and figure out how to move the ball forward, you’re always going to be left behind. The city, the structures that are put in place, they’re not going to wait. So if you do nothing, it will pass you by.