The Gloves are Off

Aaron Sarver

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While the 2004 election was a disaster for most Democrats, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Progressive Caucus, was easily reelected to her fourth term representing the 9th Congressional District in Illinois. In These Times spoke with her about the state of progressive politics.

Recently House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R‑Texas) has come under fire for ethical lapses involving his PAC. Why are Democrats so reluctant to hold Republicans accountable, when Republicans vehemently go after the smallest impropriety committed by a Democrat?

There’s an explicit criticism of Democrats here: That Republicans are better at this kind of smearing and negative campaigning. There’s a whole infrastructure to go after Democrats. There’s no question about it. But you’re seeing a change and that’s the important thing. You now see Nancy Pelosi on the floor raising ethical questions, calling for more action by the House. The charge against DeLay was brought by a Democrat from Texas, Chris Bell. Bell is now out of the House, a victim of the probably illegal redistricting that DeLay engaged in. I think there is a sense now that the gloves are off. We’re seriously gonna fight back. 

The Republicans have literally shut down democracy in the House of Representatives, not letting Democrats into conference committees, violating, if not rules of the House, longstanding traditions of the House in terms of the minority party’s right to add amendments and participate in debate. They’ve gone as far as illegal activities — offering bribes on the floor of the House, holding votes open for three hours. 

In the past we’ve thought the American people don’t really care that much about process, that it sounds whiny when you complain about it. But I think it’s really important for Democrats to not be party to this breakdown of democracy in the U.S. Congress.

You have called for an end to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. What has the United States done to stop this humanitarian crisis?

There’s a certain irony here, at least in terms of rhetoric. The United States has probably gone further than any other nation in calling this genocide. The House of Representatives, and I was one of the leaders in this, passed a resolution calling it genocide” when the administration was still reluctant to do so. We got the resolution passed in the U.S. Senate, so Congress was on record this summer calling it genocide. 

I went with Donald Payne and John Conyers to meet with Kofi Annan the first day of the Democratic Convention. I really got the sense that one of the fallouts from this war in Iraq is that the United States has lost so much credibility it’s very hard for us to push any agenda in the United Nations. It’s like, Well who are you to be telling us what to do?” But in the meantime, the atrocities, the human rights abuses and the scale of the humanitarian crisis continues to mount. It’s not as if there’s been a lack of clarity in what’s going on there — it’s just been slow in coming. We see repeated genocides occurring, and the world standing by, acknowledging it, naming it and still not doing enough.

Barack Obama will become only the third African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the U.S. Senate. What has caused white voters to change their attitudes toward African-American candidates since the 1983 Chicago mayoral campaign of Harold Washington?

There is something about Barack Obama that causes people to feel, You are the leader we’ve been waiting for.” I don’t just mean You are the black leader we’ve been waiting for.” It’s You are someone who represents what we want in a 21st Century candidate.” 

He has found the language to connect with everyone, to inspire people, to take on the cynicism of the political arena, and speak of unity and hope. To express that we don’t have to always be pitted against each other, racially, economically, geographically, in terms of our sexual orientation. You asked Why don’t Democrats go harder after Republicans?” and as things are I think we have needed to and may still need to. But ultimately I think the answer is to elect candidates and leaders like Barack Obama, who are going to lead us away from that, make us feel proud and good about ourselves. The people who supported Barack Obama felt a sense of pride in his primary victory and now feel good about themselves, not just good about Barack, but good about themselves to be supporting him.

To hear a longer version of this interview, visit the Web site of In These Times’ radio show, Fire on the Prairie” (www​.fire​on​thep​rairie​.com).

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Aaron Sarver is an independent audio producer and writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared in In These Times, The Chicago Reader, Alter​net​.org, and on Free Speech Radio News. For nearly three years he produced and co-hosted the radio program, Fire on the Prairie, which featured interviews with progressive writers and activists, and is archived at fire​on​thep​rairie​.com.
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