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Profile: Mel Watt

Mel Watt was a participant or observer in the following events:

Congressional Republicans jump-start the process to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) in what media and political observers believe is an effort to outflank Democrats, who are traditionally the most staunch supporters of the bill. Key portions of the bill are set to expire in 2007, including Section 5, which requires that states, districts, and other locales with a history of racial discrimination in their electoral processes get Justice Department approval before making any changes to voting procedures. Section 5 is intended to ensure that minorities are not disenfranchised due to their race. Observers believe Republicans want to avoid a showdown over the bill in light of the upcoming midterm elections in 2006. In 1982, the Reagan administration fought Congressional Democrats over an expansion of the law, and Republicans want to make sure that scenario does not play itself out again as the midterm elections approach. Republicans also want to reach out to African-American voters, traditionally a strong Democratic voting bloc. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), a veteran of the civil rights struggle, says, “I’m not surprised at all” that Republicans want to renew the VRA and reach out to black voters. “The Republicans are reaching out to the African-American voters.… They want to make a dent with the black electorate, take some of those voters away from the Democratic side.” Lewis intends to insert language into the renewal bill that would invalidate a recent Georgia law requiring photo identification for prospective voters, a requirement he and many others say would discriminate against the poor and the elderly. Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) broke with recent Republican tradition by calling on Congress to renew Section 5 and other portions of the VRA at the NAACP’s annual convention in July. “I am here to tell you publicly what I have told others privately, including the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Mel Watt,” Sensenbrenner told the assemblage. “During this Congress we are going to extend the Voting Rights Act. We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains. The Voting Rights Act must continue to exist—and exist in its current form.” Sensenbrenner said at the convention that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) considers renewal of the VRA “high on his list of issues the House will address this Congress.” A representative for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) says Frist is “fired up” over renewal of Section 5. Only a few months ago, Bush appeals court nominee William Pryor, a Republican from Alabama, called Section 5 “an affront to federalism and an expensive burden that has far outlived its usefulness,” a controversial characterization that Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and other Republicans defended. In May, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested that the Bush administration is not fully behind reauthorization of Section 5. Political observers say that Democrats intend to use any further Republican opposition to the VRA to claim that Republicans are insensitive to black voters, even as senior Republican strategists like Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman say they want the party to appeal to that demographic. Mehlman told the NAACP convention in July that Republican leaders had tried over the past 40 years “to benefit politically from racial polarization.” He then said, “We were wrong” to do so. [MSNBC, 10/4/2005]

Entity Tags: James Sensenbrenner, William Pryor, Bill Frist, Alberto R. Gonzales, Dennis Hastert, US Department of Justice, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Saxby Chambliss, John Lewis, Ken Mehlman, US Congress, Mel Watt, Bush administration (43), Reagan administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA).Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA). [Source: That's My Congress (.com)]The House Republican leadership cancels a vote to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA—see August 6, 1965 and June 29, 1989) after a number of House Republicans declare their opposition to renewing key portions of the legislation concerning the requirement of bilingual ballots and continued federal oversight of voting practices in some Southern states. Eight months ago, Congressional Republicans announced they intended to take the lead in renewing the VRA (see October 4, 2005). The press reports that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) was taken off-guard by the vehemence of the opposition within his party; he and other senior House Republicans believed that renewal of the VRA was on track. President Bush has said he supports renewing the VRA. In early May, House Republicans and Democrats joined on the steps of the Capitol to announce bipartisan support for the renewal of the law. However, some Southern Republicans argue that the law has served its purpose and is no longer necessary. They are now joined by Republicans from other states who resist providing ballots in languages other than English. Hastert says the Republican leadership “is committed to passing the Voting Rights Act legislation as soon as possible,” while some House Republicans say it is unclear whether the issue will be resolved before the Independence Day recess. Hastert and other House Republican leaders apparently did not anticipate the surge of anti-immigrant sentiment among their colleagues, which fuels the opposition to bilingual ballots. A previous attempt by Senate Republicans to include a provision in the VRA proclaiming English the “national language” failed. Seventy-nine House Republicans, led by Steve King (R-IA), an outspoken opponent of immigration, signed a letter written by King objecting to the VRA’s provision for bilingual ballots in precincts with large Hispanic and Asian populations. The requirement is costly and unnecessary, King wrote, adding, “The multilingual ballot mandate encourages the linguistic division of our nation and contradicts the ‘Melting Pot’ ideal that has made us the most successful multi-ethnic nation on earth.” Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) says: “A lot of it looks as if these are some old boys from the South who are trying to do away with it. But these old boys are trying to make it constitutional enough that it will withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.” King said in committee, “There is no need to print ballots in any language other than English.” When King’s provision to end multilingual requirements was removed in committee, King and his fellow anti-immigration Republicans publicly withdrew their support for the VRA. Charles Whitlow Norwood (R-GA) says flatly: “What people are really upset about is bilingual ballots. The American people want this to be an English-speaking nation.” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) says: “Clearly, there are some on the Republican side who object to this legislation, and they forced the leadership’s hand today. House Democrats stand in virtual unanimous support for this important bill.” Mel Watt (D-NC), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says, “We fear that pulling the bill could send the wrong message about whether the bill enjoys broad bipartisan support and that delaying consideration until after the July 4 recess could give those with partisan intentions space and time to politicize the issue.” Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights says in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed that the House did not vote today to renew and restore the Voting Rights Act because a small band of miscreants, at the last moment, hijacked this bipartisan, bicameral bill.” Henderson’s colleague Nancy Zirkin agrees, saying: “The fact of the matter is that you have a small group of members who have hijacked this bill, and many of these individuals represent states that have been in violation for a long time. We believe these individuals do not want the Voting Rights Act reauthorized.” [King, 1/28/2006; New York Times, 6/22/2006; Washington Post, 6/22/2006]
Opposition Letter Written by Far-Right Anti-Immigration Advocate? - Citizen investigators later demonstrate that many portions of the King letter may not have been written by King or his staffers, but by a representative of two far-right anti-immigration groups, NumbersUSA and ProEnglish. Both organizations belong to a network of groups operated by anti-immigration leader John Tanton (see February 2009). The provisions in the King letter were apparently written by K.C. McAlpin, a member of NumbersUSA and the executive director of ProEnglish. The latter group proclaims itself “the nation’s leading advocate of official English,” working “through the courts and in the court of public opinion to defend English’s historic role as the common, unifying language of the United States of America, and to persuade lawmakers to adopt English as the official language at all levels of government.” The investigators will be unable to prove McAlpin’s authorship beyond dispute, but through comparison of the King letter with McAlpin’s written testimony to Congress in November 2005, they find significant conceptual and linguistic similarities. The investigators will posit: “Given that the King letter posted at [the US House Web site, before being removed] was authored by McAlpin on software registered to NumbersUSA, coupled with its striking similarities to McAlpin’s testimony, only one of two possible causes seem plausible. Either King copied his letter from ProEnglish literature almost word for word, and then asked McAlpin, or someone using his computer, to type up a copy to post at the House of Representatives Web site, or McAlpin authored the letter himself. Either way, the letter that 79 Representatives signed to force the cancellation of the renewal of the VRA came from ProEnglish.” [King, 1/28/2006; Duke Falconer, 7/12/2006]

Entity Tags: Nancy Zirkin, John Tanton, George W. Bush, Dennis Hastert, Charles Whitlow Norwood, K.C. McAlpin, Mel Watt, US Supreme Court, Lynn Westmoreland, Wade Henderson, Steny Hoyer, US House of Representatives, ProEnglish (.com), Voting Rights Act of 1965, NumbersUSA, Steve King

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Early 2002), which many believe to be illegal. Mueller directly contradicts testimony given the day before by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (see July 24, 2007), where Gonzales claimed that “there has not been any serious disagreement about the program that the president has confirmed.” Mel Watt (D-NC) asks Mueller, “Can you confirm that you had some serious reservations about the warrantless wiretapping program that kind of led up to this?” Mueller replies, “Yes.” Later, Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) asks about the now-notorious visit by Gonzales and then-chief of staff Andrew Card to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room, where they tried to pressure the heavily sedated Ashcroft to reauthorize the program (see March 10-12, 2004). Gonzales testified that he and Card visited Ashcroft to discuss “other intelligence matters,” and not the NSA surveillance program. Jackson-Lee asks, “Did you have an understanding that the conversation was on TSP?” referring to the current moniker of the NSA operation, the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.” Mueller replies, “I had an understanding that the discussion was on an NSA program, yes.” Jackson-Lee says, “I guess we use ‘TSP,’ we use ‘warrantless wiretapping,’ so would I be comfortable in saying that those were the items that were part of the discussion?” Mueller agrees: “The discussion was on a national NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.” [Speaker of the House, 7/26/2007; New York Times, 7/26/2007]

Entity Tags: House Judiciary Committee, Alberto R. Gonzales, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Terrorist Surveillance Program, National Security Agency, Andrew Card, Mel Watt, John Ashcroft, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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