This article originally appeared in SFBayView.com.
You might call it a "tale of two women"
or "why Cynthia McKinney lost her seniority and didn't get
it back." Both women are members of Congress and both are
Democrats, but that's where the comparisons end.
McKinney, from Atlanta, Georgia, is an African-American
warrior for justice and peace and an enemy of government hypocrisy.
The other, Nancy Pelosi, is the white, privileged congresswoman
from San Francisco, a consummate politician who, because of her
prodigious fundraising abilities, was promoted by the party to
run for the seat of the late Sala Burton in 1986 and is now the
House Minority leader in Congress, thanks to her loyal service
to the party and to the party line.
Serving the truth - not the party line - was
how McKinney envisioned her job in Congress when she was elected
in 1992, and that led her into a sharp conflict, not only with
the Democrats but the Republicans, as well, because speaking the
truth required her to speak critically of Israel and in support
of justice for the Palestinians - as well as questioning U.S.
military adventures abroad.
Indeed, there is no other issue of importance
that unites both parties as does their mutual devotion to the
welfare of Israel, which at times has taken precedence over their
obligations to their constituents. Certainly, in every election
year, one finds the most liberal Democrats competing with the
most right-wing Republicans to demonstrate who loves Israel the
most. At the moment the race is too close to call.
In the aftermath of 9-11, McKinney had additionally
antagonized right-wing Republicans when she raised questions about
President Bush's prior knowledge of 9-11 and, presciently, the
profits that would be made by his cronies. She is still talking
about it. "What did he know and when did he know it?"
was her challenge. And back in Congress, she is once again the
most active, if not the only member of Congress pursuing the truth
about who was behind the attack on the World Trade Center and
In 2002, after watching her serve five terms
in Congress, the pro-Israel lobby and the Republicans decided
they had had enough of McKinney. While party officials looked
the other way, the lobby provided an opposition candidate, Denise
Majette, and the funds for her campaign, mostly from outside Atlanta,
while the Republicans, with no opposing candidate in their own
primaries, crossed over to the Democratic side and provided an
estimated 40,000 votes - enough to give Majette the victory and
assure election that November in the heavily Democratic 4th District.
McKinney was down but not out. In 2004, she
was back again, and Majette, with more ambition than brains, decided
to run for a vacated seat in the U.S. Senate, a decision that
so outraged some of her pro-Israel funders that they publicly
demanded that she give them their money back. After all, an investment
is an investment.
In that primary, McKinney was facing five
opponents, all but one of them with experience in a state or local
elected office. Rather than pick one of the candidates to support,
the pro-Israel lobby - which couldn't care less about the people
of Atlanta, or of the United States, for that matter - was waiting
for what it assumed would be a run-off between McKinney and one
of the other candidates, at which time it would place its support
behind that candidate.
McKinney's goal was to get 51 percent and
leave the lobby in the starting blocks, and that's what happened.
With grassroots support and little money, and no help from the
national party, she staged what should have been called the political
comeback of the year. But as she found out, the party wasn't ready
to deal with her back in office. One of the most obvious expressions
of this was its refusal to give her back her 10 years of seniority.
On July 12, I interviewed McKinney on my KPOO
program and she explained what happened: "I was not successful
in convincing Nancy Pelosi that my seniority was worth restoring,"
she told me.
"I was not involved alone in that effort.
I am quite confident that there were hundreds, maybe thousands
of emails sent from literally every point across this country,
from the large urban areas of New York City, Chicago and San Francisco
to the still urban but less populated areas like down here in
Georgia and throughout the South. I know that there were people
all over this country who were interested and who supported the
reinstatement of my seniority.
"After all, it is exactly what happened
with returning Republicans who came back in the class of 2005,
who were sworn in with me. There was Dan Lungren of California,
who had been out of Congress 15 years or so, and he returned to
Congress as if he had not missed one day. That's because the Republican
leadership saw fit to restore his seniority because they valued
"There was also Bob English from South
Carolina, a Republican, who returned after one term out of Congress,
just like me. He also was restored his seniority by the Republican
leadership. That was not accorded to me and to the legions of
people that supported me by Nancy Pelosi."
Regaining her seniority was not just a matter
of image. According to a former Washington congressional staffer,
"The big advantage is not only committee assignments but
moving up the ladder to becoming chairman of the committee itself,
and getting chairs of subcommittees. That means more and more
"It is really hard to function in the
House with the limited staff you get. Remember you have half a
million constituents to serve with 18 people in your district
and Washington offices. As you get more assignments, you get more
staff, a bigger budget and more office space."
That is not laughable, as the damned offices
are tiny - parking spaces - all the perks that go with it. Freshmen
have little cracker boxes, practically no staff, etc. Not getting
back her seniority means that a lot of seasoned people she had
working for her did not get their jobs back.
As it happens, Pelosi was in San Francisco
two days later speaking at a packed town hall meeting at the Marina
Middle School in the wealthy Marina district, as far away from
Bay View Hunters Point as you can get without stepping in the
Bay. At what turned out to be an abbreviated press conference,
I told her what McKinney had said and asked her why she hadn't
given her seniority back when she was re-elected to Congress.
It was not a question she was anticipating.
"As a matter of course," she responded,
"seniority is not given back when members come back to Congress."
I informed her that other members of Congress
who had been re-elected after leaving office had been given their
seniority and asked her who made the decision in McKinney's case:
"It's a decision of the steering committee of the leadership,"
Pelosi coolly replied.
And so, I said, it was decided not to give
Cynthia McKinney back her seniority, and that's when Pelosi became
a bit flustered.
"Cynthia got … uh … Cynthia chose to
leave the…. She chose, she left Congress ... uh … she was voted
out," Pelosi stammered, "But there's nothing, nothing
there that says, when members come back, that other members should
be disrupted in terms of their seniority."
Before I could ask her a follow-up question,
she thanked the members of the press and left the room.
I had earlier asked Pelosi why she had not
initially supported the resolution to withdraw the troops from
Iraq made by Rep. John Murtha, which she had praised during her
speech. Her answer was a strange one:
"I never opposed Murtha. From the very
first day, I said to my caucus, at the proper time, I will publicly
endorse Murtha, but as long as possible I want him to be out there
on his own." Like running him up on the flagpole and waiting
to see if anyone saluted him.
When asked why she didn't push the Murtha
position within the party, she replied, "In our caucus, when
it comes to a vote of war, it is strictly a vote of conscience
and constituency. It is more important for members to reach their
own conclusion on Murtha rather than tell them this is the way
I want them to vote. It has more legitimacy if it is something
that springs from their difference and their conscience."
As the Chronicle reported the next day, Pelosi,
in fact, waited 14 days before endorsing Murtha's call for withdrawal.
The reason she finally did so, I have learned from a reliable
source, was that her staff took an internal poll and discovered
that if Matt Gonzalez, who barely lost the vote for mayor, would
run against Pelosi in the primary, he would win. That's when Pelosi
became the anti-war politician, but within limits. When asked
by a reporter if she was "surprised when people say that
you're funding the war? That's what many of those protesters were
saying about you," Pelosi responded:
Such as her not voting and leading the fight
against the next multi-billion request by President Bush that
will keep the war going.
The protesters she was referring to were a
group of about a dozen women led by Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin
and another dozen members of the International Socialist Organization,
all of whom carried signs that in one way or another, called for
ending the funding for the Iraq war.
Although the audience was clearly opposed
to the war, it accepted Pelosi's answers and gave her a standing
ovation at the end of the question period. Unlike her past town
meetings, there were no microphones for the public on the floor
and all the questions had to be submitted on special cards. Topics
were limited to the war in Iraq, the NSA spy scandal and attacks
on our constitutional rights.
concerning her support for Israel and the possibility of a U.S.
attack on Iran were off limits. Since it was the weekend preceding
the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Pelosi
made repeated reference to an Aramaic saying he had learned while
visiting India, which she didn't risk pronouncing, but which translates
into "Truth Insistence." She referred to it several
times during her talk. Whether she followed its precepts, however,
is open to question.
Meanwhile, McKinney made her film debut in
"American Blackout," an independent film that premiered
at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah,
and which explores the disempowerment of the Black vote through
her eyes and political career.
Produced and directed by Ian Inaba, of the
Guerilla News Network, the documentary follows McKinney on a journey
which includes her protesting the disenfranchisement of Black
voters in Florida following the controversial victory of George
W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.
Plans are being made to show the film in San
Francisco in June as a benefit for the SF Bay View.
Email Jeff Blankfort at firstname.lastname@example.org.