He literally willed a legislative victory when much of the media, the public polls, and bad political luck seemed to have rendered any significant health care reform —call it health insurance reform if you want—dead in the water as of December 2009 when the Democrats’ super majority (60 votes) was lost in the U.S. Senate. This was no mere save-it bill. With all due respect to the Lily Ledbetter Act, the U.S. Economy Recovery Act (Stimulus Bill), the expansion of the federal hate crimes law, and a host of other laws he has affixed his signature to in the 14 months of his administration, this particular bill is worthy of special distinction. This was a project he chose, not one he inherited from the previous administration. This was a challenge he stood up for when many others questioned both its timing, its importance, and its winning viability. Well, he won, and through him, we all won.
Not only does this health care law represent the accomplishment of a long-time Democratic Party goal, President Obama becomes the first chief executive to sign into law this piece of legislation that was at least 80 years in the making. A number of other Democratic presidents, and at least one Republican, Richard Nixon, have tried to get it done, from Woodrow Wilson through Bill Clinton, but they all previously failed, even when they, too, had Democratic majorities in Congress. That alone makes President Obama stand out as head of state. Although, hopefully, he will blaze many other firsts and have numerous other legislative victories within the next seven years, he has already earned his place in the books as a president of consequence and note, far beyond any racial designation of fame.
This brings to mind other public servants who have taken the courageous path lest trod, leaned in against the gale force winds, and triumphed against the grain. Adam Clayton Powell, a political giant whose story yearns to be properly told; Byron Rumford, a pioneering California state legislator whose accomplishments are still part of our everyday lives; and former U.S. Congressman and California Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally. All are principle role models of this distinguished leadership elite that President Obama now well represents. They not only walked into the teeth of the hurricane– when they had clear alternative choices of softer, calmer, and more lucrative projects–they persevered when even their close friends and allies thought it was imprudent to do so.
Congressman Powell, the first strongman Black legislator out of Harlem (1945-1971), became so effective at getting bills passed that were beneficial not only to Blacks, but to the general public as well, that he became a target of harassment and eventual expulsion from the House of Representatives. He was the immediate predecessor of Congressman Charlie Rangel. Before he left Congress, Mr. Powell, who became three-term chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, helped to pass more than 50 measures which authorized federal programs to increase the minimum wage, to provide education and training for the deaf, to provide federal subsidies for school lunches, for vocational training, student loans, for standardizing wages and working hours, and for federal budgetary support regarding both elementary and secondary schools and public libraries. Mr. Powell was also a co-writer for much of the civil rights agenda credited to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Similarly, Byron Rumford, with his AB 1240 legislation, i.e., the Rumford Act, which outlawed housing discrimination in California, among other pieces of important legislation, knew how to fight the good fight and win consistently at this political game. Our local legendary lion, of course, Mervyn Dymally, more than once took on a hornet’s nest in order to better the social-political conditions for his constituents and Americans in general. His legislative footprint is huge in both California and the USA. More recently, he championed AB 318 to save Compton College from the fate of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, after he belatedly found out about the perfidy of the then-Compton College Board that threatened imminent closure of the school. Both of these imminent legislators and public servants again and again showed outstanding courage, pluck, adroit skill and insight, and we are the better for it.
All these leaders, and several more, including the Honorable Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Diane Watson, Karen Bass, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and State Senator Curren Price, to name just a few in this state, have what can be called political character. They are politicians of substance and soul, rather than being merely political characters enjoying the celebrity that comes with their titles. No, they are not perfect, and we don’t expect them to be. But they all know what integrity in public office is and they march to that mantra. They are not afraid to go all in to move the ball further ahead for the public’s benefit.
We need more leaders like that. We need to train our youth how to recognize the wheat from the chaff among the political leadership out there, and we need to teach the youth to model themselves after the courageous, honest ones who know how to get things done.
All is not lost, dear people. We still have such champions among us. But let’s make sure the baton-takers within the ranks are ready when the time comes to pass our champions’ wisdom, strength, and wherewithal onward. Inglewood, do you hear me? Choose well among your talented few.
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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