Zona Jefferson, a teacher from rural Sumter, S.C., and Darlene Nipper, a Washington, D.C. native, had never met but their paths converged in mid-town of the Nation’s Capital last week.

The two women were part of the thousands who descended on the Washington Convention Center for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), from Sept. 19 to 22.

“I’m only interested in the conversations on education as there are disconnects between federal and local issues and I want to find solutions,” said Jefferson at her first ALC.

“It was important for me to meet and thank our legislative leaders for the ACA, and the repeal of DADT,” added Nipper citing the Affordable Care Act; and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that led gay service members to be dismissed if their sexual orientation were revealed.

They both found what they were looking at the CBC’s 42nd annual conference conducted under the theme, Inspiring Leaders/Building Generation. The caucus is the umbrella group for 42 of the 43 Black members of Congress.

“The Annual Legislative Conference brings together policy-makers, educators, business and industry leaders, celebrities, media, emerging leaders and everyday Americans to discuss and solve issues important to all Americans,” said CBCF outgoing president Elsie L. Scott, Ph.D.

Voter Town Hall
Although festive, the atmosphere was focused on the Nov. 6 general elections. Forums zeroed in on key issues affecting Black America with voting rights and enfranchisement law dominating the discussions. In 2008, African-American and Latino voter turnout was the highest in history.

“It’s not shocking there has been backlash in the form of limiting people of color’s right to vote,” said CBC chair Emmanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) at the ALC National Town Hall on Sept. 20. About 180 restrictive voting bills passed or proposed in 41 states in the name of preventing voter fraud in the last two years could disenfranchise an estimated five million African Americans, Cleaver said.

During discussion of the issue by a voting rights panel that included Democratic National Committee vice chair Donna Brazile, conservative political commentator Crystal Wright and Republican strategist Ron Christie and CBC members John Lewis (D-Ga.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Marsha Fudge (D-Ohio), Justice Department data was cited showing that the voter fraud rate for the nation is roughly .0003 of the votes cast.

D.C. Budget Autonomy
Although the town hall ended upbeat, the same could not be said for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s session on D.C.’s budget autonomy featuring the District’s Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, D.C.Vote Public Affairs Director Eugene Kinlow and {WTTG Fox 5} political commentator Mark Plotkin. The room was starkly empty.

Gandhi said D.C. has credibility to control its budget, especially as it has balanced budgets 15 years straight.

“We’ve had fiscally prudent mayors and we need the right to spend our own money,” Gandhi said. Because Congress only passed on-time budgets three times in 22 years, District services are at risk. “We have no trash collection, no parks and recreation and no library services,” Gandhi said. “We have shown we can handle our affairs better than Congress.”

Plotkin, who is White, faulted President Obama for not being aggressive about congressional voting rights or statehood for a city that is labeled by its critics as “too liberal, too urban, too Democrat and too Black.”

Political Theme
Politics permeated the discussions in everyday experiences, including the homeless, the unemployed and veterans. Sessions examined stroke and HIV/AIDs and what happens if ACA is repealed. Forums targeted different demographics like youth. The ALC attracted celebrities to host sessions or deliver keynotes and the exhibit hall housed an author’s pavilion, a jobs fair, a health exhibition and exhibitors who showcased products and services.

“This CBC conference places emphasis on voters’ rights and voter fraud,” said Sybongile Cook, a District resident and member of the Greek sorority, Zeta Phi Beta. She learned there are more than a million African-American members of sororities and fraternities.

“If each Greek registers 10 people, this election will be able to put the president back into the White House,” Cook said.

Report on African-American Consumers
According to The Nielsen Co. and the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA), companies failing to invest in Black media miss a key demographic.

“Too many corporations cut out Black media in favor of mainstream media,” said Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and former director of the NNPA, the 72-year-old federation of 200 Black newspapers. “They should be looking for creative ways to partner with the Black media to become part of the community.” Nielsen measures consumers’ media consumption.

Phoenix Award
ALC culminated in the awards dinner that recognized four people with the Phoenix Award, which symbolized the immortality of the human spirit. Honorees were Attorney General Eric Holder, “Red Tails” writer and director George Lucas, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) and former Charlotte, N.C. mayor Harvey Gantt.

More significant was that First Lady Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker. She appealed to attendees to make “little changes at home” when it comes to educating children.

“Turn off the TV, and check homework,” she said to thunderous applause. “And even though we do what we can at home, it can’t stop there. The persons ultimately responsible for the laws are the ones that shape our lives.” 


Michelle Phipps-Evans

Special to the AFRO