New York City Congressman Gregory Meeks has been calling Hillary Clinton “Madame President” for some time now, but he is “very proud” of her closest competitor, Barack Obama, seeing him as a great choice for president — in 2016.
In a long-ish interview, Meeks also implied that he sees himself as a potential Secretary of Commerce or Secretary of State in the next administration, assuming, that is, he first fulfills his quest of “helping Hillary Rodham Clinton become the next president of the United States of America.”
Meeks, who alludes on his web site to his being part of a “generational shift” in black leadership, predicted that Clinton win among African-American voters.
“You’ll see that Hillary Clinton will get her fair share of African- American votes, that she’ll beat Barack Obama,” he said. “And on the same token…I’m very proud of Barack and what’s he has accomplished over a short period of time. He raises the hopes and aspirations of a whole lot of individuals that, indeed, maybe America can change and is changing.”
He added: “I think that as race moves on, you’ll see that Barack will get his fair share but Hillary will get more than his share. Cause that’s one of the things that folks always forget about the black vote – it’s never, and has never been, monolithic. The black vote has been something that always has voted their interest, you know.”
Meeks also spoke on congestion pricing (he supports it), the future of the Democratic Leadership Council’s brand of Democratic centrism (he says the party should still be embracing it), the trips he has been taking on Clinton’s behalf.
Here’s a longer transcript of the interview:
OBSERVER: I want to read you a quote, and I’m very curious where you come down on it. It’s Barack Obama, talking about his reverend.
“Reverend Wright is a child of the 60s, and he often expresses himself in that language of concern with institutional racism and the struggles the African-American community has gone through. He analyzes public events in the context of race. I tend to look at them through the context of social justice and inequality.” Where do you fall?
MEEKS: Well, I look at the issues of — you know, after the Dr. King and the civil rights movement, the question of, as he said in one of his last speeches, ‘Where do we go from here, a community of chaos that had come a long way basically, we’ve got a long way to go, and there is now some basic inequalities and injustices that are in the system…’ Now that we’ve fought for the rights of voters…there are still plenty that remain and remain today. And the fight was to get people into positions so that they could begin to make a difference there. And I think that’s part of what my responsibility is. Some people look at the civil rights movement and say that meant everything was equal and okay. I don’t think that was Dr. King’s vision; Dr. King’s vision was we need to get to this position so that we can now begin to cure some of the injustices that are latent in the system, and so the next phase of the civil rights movement is, is to, for example, economic. So therefore, to a great deal, when you think about it – when you think about social justice and racial equality – then, you know, really they’re linked, and all part of the same goal.
OBSERVER: How do you think the African-American vote is going to play out between Senators Clinton and Obama? Will there be that divide between the so-called new generation of black leadership going for Obama and the older generation with the Clinton? Or, in the end, do you see the vast majority of African-Americans ultimately siding with Obama?
MEEKS: Oh no, I think that you’ll see that Hillary Clinton will get her fair share of African-American votes, that she’ll beat Barack Obama. I think that individuals vote, vote their best interest and because – well, what happens is I think African Americans in the large part vote what they feel, like Barack said himself, he… is encouraging people to vote who they believe is the best candidate regardless of race, and I think that that’s what you’re going to see as Hillary gets more steady, and looking at what’s taking place, I think you’re looking at the current situation that we’re currently in. We need leaders today. And on the same token…I’m a strong Hillary supporter, but I’m very proud of Barack and what’s he has accomplished over a short period of time. He raises the hopes and aspirations of a whole lot of individuals that, indeed, maybe America can change and is changing. So that they can look at an African- American candidate and all people, regardless of race, can look at them as a serious candidate. And Barack is going to play a huge part no matter what takes place in this race afterwards…addressing the policies of the US of America. But I think you’re going to see more and more black-I think that Barack will get his fair share, but I think that Hillary will get, get a large share, and I think she’s starting to pick up right now even with the younger African-American women in particular. So I think that as race moves on, you’ll see that Barack will get his fair share but Hillary will get more than her share. Cause that’s one of the things that folks always forget about the black vote: it’s never, and has never been, monolithic. The black vote has been something that always has voted their interest, you know, That’s something people don’t, don’t realize. You know, black votes voted for Republicans for a long period of time because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and they thought that was in their interest. They began to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a Democrat, in the 20s and the 30s, because they thought that was in their interest. And then after Roosevelt, you know, for a long period of time no one knew where blacks were going to vote because blacks were not sure whether Democrats or Republicans were in their interest, until 1960 with the whole piece with King and Kennedy…Goldwater became the Republican nominee and then it became clear the divide between Democrats and Republicans with regard to blacks’ interest. And so it is that blacks will vote their interest and the same thing will be in Democratic primaries when they have candidates that they believe will take their interests and concerns at heart, they will vote their interest, and so, therefore, it’s not a monolithic vote, it’s a vote based upon what they believe their interests are.
OBSERVER: But with Clinton and Obama sharing many policy positions, won’t many see it as more in their interest to see an African-American role model leading the country?
MEEKS: Well they’re starting to see it right now. They see it in the leadership of Barack Obama in the Senate and the fact that he’s running and the way that he’s running. They see it in the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee here, Charlie Rangel, and what he’s doing. They see it in the leadership of individuals like Bob Johnson, CEO, and [Richard Parsons] from Time Warner. They see it in that kind of leadership. They see that kind of leadership of African-Americans in all different factions. And they see clear and distinct leadership
– some political, some business, some labor. In Barack what you see right now, back in [the past] the feeling was this would be a member of the House – now you can’t just be a member of the House, but a member of the Senate, and not just a member in the Senate, but a leader in the Senate. And then, that you can be a candidate that can run for president of the United States, win lose or draw, you know, and be able to garner support from individuals not just based upon race but based upon equality of that leadership and the hope and the aspirations of which you can bring in. He is building upon, what Barack is doing, he is on the next stage if you will, he is building upon what I believe Jesse Lewis Jackson did in ’84 and ’88, and he’s just taking it to the next step. And then someone, either Barack cause I don’t believe he’s going to do it now, but maybe he can build upon it for eight years from now or someone else can.
OBSERVER: So for Obama: maybe eight years down the road?
MEEKS: I think that’s a very real possibility.
OBSERVER: I read that you’ve been calling Senator Clinton “Madame President” for some time. How does she respond when you call her that?
MEEKS: Well, you know, when she called me to say ultimately that she was running, what she said was, ‘You’ve been calling me Madame President now. You can help me work towards making that a reality.”
And what she does is she looks at this thing as hard work — I mean she’s one of the hardest workers that I’ve seen — and she looks at it as focusing on a marathon race and so now when I talk to her it’s not jokingly calling her Madame President anymore, it’s ‘What do we need to do? The work we need to do to get this thing done.’ So she’s very focused — and as a result everyone around her is very focused
— on make sure we’re doing the kinds of things that are necessary to enhance her campaign and get a message out there of the quality of her candidacy and why she is the right person at the right time for the United States of America.
OBSERVER: What, specifically, has she asked you to do recently in helping that effort?
MEEKS: I’m preparing, we’ve got five days a week here in Washington D.C… and I travel the country, meet with folks and talk to folks.
You know, we are always talking to our colleagues here in the House trying to get those who are undecided to go one way or the other, to come support the Senator, and so you’re always like a surrogate to the campaign and to her.
OBSERVER: You endorsed Senator Kerry very early. Now Senator Obama is in some polls gaining on Clinton in some polls – South Carolina. Are you concerned?
MEEKS: Oh, I’m not concerned. You know, I’m confident that Hillary – that Hillary will win. But we’ve got great candidates running on the Democratic side, so should someone else be president of the United States, I think they may need a little, a little more help and a little more time…than Clinton, but I think that they would all be great presidents of the United States. Clearly much better than the one we have now.
OBSERVER: About you – you’ve won an award for Congressional leadership and have been called a rising star in the Democratic Party. If Hillary Clinton does become president, and were presented with the possibility of a job in her cabinet — or a run for her Senate seat – what would you do?
MEEKS: You know…I think we’re living in global economy and moving forward in that world. And there’s a number of areas where I can be helpful, whether it’s USTR, whether it’s commerce, in those areas, or bringing countries together, or even something in the State Department. It’s those things that I think I could be beneficial in.
OBSERVER: Maybe Secretary of Commerce?
MEEKS: Yeah, look: that’s how you’re dealing with this global economy so you can make sure when you’re talking about nations, there’s two forms, the oldest forms of relationships. One is trade, commerce, working together with nations, and the other is war. And I’d like to be able to prevent the war and talk about the commerce and how we can become more interdependent on one another and work out some of the issues in that regard, dealing with the global economy.
OBSERVER: No interest in the Senate seat that might open up?
MEEKS: Well, that’s another thing that is–well, of course. You know, I’ve learned in this business that you never say never to anything. I never thought that when I was elected to the Assembly, that I’d be sitting here in Congress right now. I’m one that I’m just focused on making sure I do the best job I can on behalf of the people of the Sixth Congressional District, and the city and the state of New York and thereby the United States, and as opportunities present themselves, you look at them at that particular time. But right now I’m focused on doing the best job I can for those that I represent and helping Hillary Rodham Clinton become the next president of the United States of America.
OBSERVER: You’re a leader in the DLC. Is there still a place in the Democratic Party and the country for the kind of Clintonian Democratic centrism that you are a proponent of? Or are the netroots and more traditionally liberal elements of the Democratic Party winning out?
MEEKS: No, I think that America is much more in the middle than they are to one extreme or the other…We won the House basically in those seats that were toss-up seats — they could go either way — and I think that’s why you find that the differences in the Senate and in the House are so close, because it’s exactly where America is. It’s really in the middle. Now you happen to have your strongest seats of course on either side, that are strongly Democratic or Republican, maybe strongly somewhat liberal or are somewhat conservative. But I think America as a whole is more in the middle. America wants to figure out how parties can do things that’s best for the country as opposed to doing things that are just best for individual parties.
Unfortunately what has happened, the closer we are in numbers, the more dominant voices you hear from the extreme left wing or, extreme right wing of the parties. But you really get things accomplished doing things split down the middle. And I think the policies that the DLC talks about is creating policy that can basically benefit both segments of our population, whether you are rich or you are poor or in the middle, it focused on making sure you’re helping the middle class – a strong middle class philosophy. But it also, within that strong middle class philosophy, its talking about how you can get those who are deprived, who are aspiring to be in the middle class, into the middle class, and I think so those kinds of policies I think are important. It’s also, for example, you can’t be pro-labor without being pro-business in my estimation. So it has a strong labor. You look at the DLC, a lot of labor unions that are participating and a part of it as well as business organizations. You need both if you are going to have a thriving economy. And that’s the DLC and the Clintoninan type of philosophy, and that’s why you have the kind of prosperity that we had during the ’90s under Bill Clinton. We need that again in my estimation.
OBSERVER: Is Obama too far to the left?
MEEKS: Well, I think Obama, if you look at some of his policies, is moving more and more to the middle. I mean what you have is a Democratic primary where a lot of folks have a tendency because the way primaries are. But if you look at his overall voting record since he’s been in the Senate, you can’t say that he’s been to the extreme left…in fact he was criticized early on by some of the extreme left, but he…couldn’t do that because he has to represent all folks as the senator for the entire state of Illinois.
OBSERVER: On a more local issue, what are your thoughts on congestion pricing?
MEEKS: Well to me, I agree that we’ve got to do something in regards to the environment…the question is just how you do it. If you’re going to have congestion pricing with those individuals who happen to be from the outer borough, then you have to have the appropriate mechanisms of transportation for folks to get in and out the city of New York, particularly those who have to work. So you need more. For example in my district…it has to be easier access. We need more types of public transportation, whether it’s downtown Manhattan from Jamaica…You just can’t say, “Do congestion pricing” and not come up with creative ways of increasing public transportation to and from the city. I think the mayor has some of that in his proposal, and if he continues moving in that way — and I haven’t had the chance to talk to the mayor or anyone else in my regard — I would need in a district like mine, with part of the community not in reach of a subway immediately. So how we are connected, do additional lines, and make sure we have access to public transportation I think is the key…so I’m not against what the mayor’s plan is, I just need to talk to him a little bit more or the members of his team and we can just make sure that all of Queens and all of New York have access to the city by public transportation.
OBSERVER: As a former assembly member, you have a lot of experience with the political, institutional dynamics that are playing out right now. What do you think about the amount of influence Sheldon Silver and the Assembly have right now, particularly over decisions concerning New York City?
MEEKS: Well, I think he has as much control as the members of his delegations choose to give him. He has to go to the body because that’s ultimately who’s got to vote. And if the body decides that there is something that they want or that is significant, then I’ve known Shelly to be one to listen. So I’m sure that there are conferences that are being held among members and conversations among members in Albany, that is happening on a continuous basis. And we’ll figure out what’s going on. So I don’t say that one man has the power; I say that that body has power and should be powerful. That body of the members of the Assembly, just as the body of the members of the State Senate, and the Governor. So the three legislative bodies — the Senate, the Assembly, and the executive — they have the power and they have to deal with it among themselves.
OBSERVER: You said there are two tasks really on your mind right:
your district and electing Hillary Rodham Clinton president. What are thinking right now with regard to helping your district? Is immigration on your mind?
MEEKS: Immigration, of course, is an issue that’s very important to me — number one given my district, number two given the importance to the country — and I think that we need to get something done, whether it’s the bill that came out of the Senate or not is two different things, but we need to look at it and to tweak it and we need to force ourselves to sit down and work something out, because I think that is vitally important to get the immigration bill done.
What I think is also important in my district is the economic revitalization in the district to make sure we have the balance of commercial and residential development going, no overdevelopment in regards to either one of them, but good balance – and that’s what’s tremendously important in the district and I think probably the number one issue that we need to do in the district and probably in the city of New York. The mayor is moving in the right direction – and that’s strengthening our education system, because when you’re dealing in this global economy… education now has become more important than it ever has, and if an individual does not have a quality education today then they are almost doomed for the rest of their live not to have as good a life, a better life for themselves and their families. And I look at the graduation rates and dropout rates of some schools in my district. It is a grave concern to me, and so I’m really looking to see what we can do about that and how we can improve that and get some of these young people in school so that they can have a quality education and thereby be law-abiding experiences as opposed to having to finance them in prison cells.
OBSERVER: What is the next thing you’re going do for fulfilling Senator Clinton’s request to you?
MEEKS: The next thing that I’m probably going to be doing is at the next vote, I’ll be sitting down and talking to some members of Congress on the House floor who are undecided, trying to convince them that Senator Clinton is the best way for them to go. That’s the very next thing that I’m going to do because it will be done in the next 45 minutes to an hour…I’ll be on the road — going throughout the states, a number of states on her behalf, meeting with individuals and talking to them — and trying to help raise some money also — as to why I believe Sen. Clinton is the best person to be the next president of the United States of America. So there’s nothing limited with reference to where I’ve made travels on her behalf, speak, organize, raise money, try to get additional volunteers into her campaign, convincing individuals…that supporting Hillary Clinton is the best thing they can do now for the United States of America.
OBSERVER: Anything else on your mind?
MEEKS: Only other thing that’s on my mind that I might add is that I think it’s tremendously important for us as Americans right now living in this age of globalization, is not to become protectionist now, is not to start looking inward now, and not to think that that those two oceans can separate us from the rest of the world. We have to think how we can better engage with the rest of the world, because the danger of not engaging is much greater I think than if we do, and as a result I look and see that a third of the members of Congress, for example, don’t own passports. That’s a grave concern. We have to get out there, interact with other countries because doing that, it shows leadership. In this time, when America for the last 15-20 years, we’ve become the world’s only superpower, and the question is what will we do with it? Will we just be inward looking and thinking about ourselves only at the cost to others? Or do we figure out how we continue our greatness and with that greatness lift other countries around us, developing countries, other countries around us?
Can we help pull them up also so that they can enjoy some of the benefits that we enjoy in our economy… If we don’t think that way then I think that our lives as the only superpower could be a short one. And I think that we’ve got a lot to give, we’ve got a lot to lead and in this day and age that we’re living in, and so I’m also focused on making sure that we understand that and we begin to work with and help developing countries throughout the world, work with other countries that may not think exactly like us, so that we can have a better Earth and share the Earth. The Earth has become so much smaller in the last twenty years than it was previously, and that’s why we gotta focus on it, because it’s going to take all of us to preserve this place called Planet Earth.
OBSERVER: And who knows? You could be the Secretary of State leading that effort two years from now.
MEEKS: ‘Who knows’ is correct.