In the weeks leading up to the congressional hearings on HR 4423, but specially since the committee approved the bill in a 6 to 4 vote split along party lines, the Ethiopian immigrant community has been engaged in a heated discussion of whether one or the other political parties might have an ideological affinity with the causes of our community. In the early stages of this conversation, much of the discussion was centered on the sense of betrayal many felt upon observing the partisan alignment of the members of the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa. To the surprise of many observers, Democratic members let it be known early in the process that they are quite pleased with the record of the Meles regime. Equally surprising to some was the realization that the Republican chair and the other members from his caucus had serious concerns over the political developments in Ethiopia but especially about the way the Meles government has been conducting itself over the last year or so.
Two historical facts explain much of the community's consternation over the unexpected alignment of the members of the Africa Subcommittee. First, many had thought that the Republican congressional majority would support the position of the Republican administration as it so often supports the foreign policy position of President Bush. The White House and the State Department have consistently supported Mr. Meles even when he goes against what appears to be America’s long term national interest. The war on terror is so paramount to the Bush doctrine that a tyrant such as Meles could receive pass after pass for everyone of his transgressions as long as he is viewed to be an important ally by those who direct the war on terror. Readers know the record and I don’t believe I need to enumerate all of the times the Bush administration went against America’s long established ideals in supporting a man who would not allow his people to enjoy basic human rights such as the freedom of speech, the right of free assembly and the right to chose their political leaders. And so, many had concluded that no self-respecting congressional committee which constitutes a Republican majority would even debate let alone pass a bill to censor Mr. Meles and to direct the Bush administration to pursue a different course in its Ethiopia policy.
The other historical fact pertains to the common settlement patterns of Ethiopian immigrants in the process of our long march towards assimilation into American society. Many of us often arrive as students or illegal immigrants and settle in poor urban centers where the rent in cheap and public transportation is easily accessible. The communities where we first settle often tend to be where ethnic minorities constitute majorities. These urban communities are often represented in the U.S. congress by Democrats. Thus our first contacts with representative government, whether it is when we seek help to regularize our legal status in the U.S. or trying to bring family members once our status is legalized, is with the offices of our congressional representatives which often tend to be a Democrat and sometimes a Black Democrat. From these early beginnings, many of us go on to establish long term relationships with our representatives and with the Democratic Party. The reactions over the last few weeks indicate that our community had invested a lot of emotion into the relationship with the Democratic Party and thought of it as something special when no special relationship existed.
If truth be told, seldom do we sit back and examine the ideological bent of either party, especially on the question of how they would handle the struggle of our compatriots back in Ethiopia. All of our preconceived ideas about how congressmen from either party would vote are just that, preconceived and not guided by systematic examination of American electoral politics. The heart wrenching lack of support by Democrats in the Africa Subcommittee is not a reflection of the nature of that party any more than the support by all of the Republicans on that subcommittee is a testimony to the character of the Republican Party.
All you have to do is go beyond the vote on the subcommittee and look at the party affiliation of the representatives who have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. You will see a radically different alignment of the two parties. Of the 15 co-sponsors who have so far signed in support of HR 4423, fully two third are Democrats (Loretta Sanchez of California, Ms. Zoe Lofgren of California, Mr. Charles Range of New York, Mr. John Barrow of Georgia, Ms. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Mr. Ed Towns of New York, Mr. Martin Sabo of Minnesota, Mr. Jim Moran of Virginia, Mr. Allen Boyd of Florida, and Ms. Diane Watson of California). Republicans, including Congressman Smith of New Jersey, Mr. Frank Wolf of Virginia, Mr. Ed Royce of California, Mr. Rohrabacher of California, and Mr. Tom Tancredo of Colorado constitute only 5 of the 15 cosponsors. In my own hometown, we are blessed with two congressmen, one Democrat and one Republican. Most Ethiopians in this town happen to live in the Republican district and have had years of relationship with him. However, we have yet to succeed in our effort to encourage him to sign on as a cosponsor. The Democrat on the other hand, signed as a co-sponsor at our first visit. Now of course in order to understand how things in our town truned out that way, you need to know that the Democrat is a freshman congressman standing for his first re-election bid this coming fall while the Republican has been around since 1992, is a senior member of the Republican congressional leadership and is nearly certain of being re-elected.
This brings me to the central message of this post. Very often, indeed far too often, what matters to the representatives we send to Washington is how an idea plays back home in their district. In my part of the country for example, there are very few Ethiopian immigrants. However, among us, there are no known EPRDF supporters. We had secured over two hundred signatures, mostly college students, in support of HR 4423 and together with the half-dozen Ethiopians here, we were able to secure a co-sponsor. To our congressmen, that petition represents over 200 potential votes in November.
My other representative, who actually has some personal connection with Ethiopia having spent part of childhood in Addis, does not worry about a meassley 200 votes. He worries about several military bases in his district. He worries about supporting the troops who fight the war on terror. As a member of the Republican leadership, he is responsible for making sure that his party continues to constitute a majority in both houses of congress. So, our only hope for getting him to sign on is to get him to understand that Mr. Meles’ tyranical government breeds potential terrorists. Our task is to cast our cause as one which advances his cause, not retard it. We are working hard to get him to appreciate that if they continue to be denied of their rights, the people of Ethiopia will at some point take matters into their own hands. At some point, they will begin to try to defend themselves by whatever means necessary.
The point in relating this story is to underline the nature of American politics. One Tip O’Neil who served as Speaker of the House between 1975 and 1985 once said that in America “all politics is local”. What matters to a representative is how an idea plays among his constituency. I know Rep. Payne has several influential members of the Ethiopian community living in his district. These individuals happen to have strong business ties with the Meles regime and thus had successfully persuaded Mr. Payne to see things their way. Actually, that is not their way – it is the American way. Had, Mr. Payne lived in my district rather than in New Jersey, I suspect he would have been more sympathetic to the Ethiopian cause in the course of the HR 4423 debate.
Just as there has never been a special bond between Democrats and Ethiopian immigrants so far, there should not be a special animus between us going forward. Like I said before, you only have to look at the 10 out of 15 cosponsors to understand that most Democrats are likely to eventually stand with us as this bill winds its way to the President's desk. God only knows, we desperately want them to do so. Indeed, my concern is how we are going to get enough law makers from the President’s party to go against their President and side with us so that, together with the Democratic votes we could actually make this bill become law. That is a big hurdle for us to jump cross. Except if we organize effective strategies and we persist by calling and visiting our representatives frequently, most congressmen would not even think of what goes on in Ethiopia. Never mistake that the knowledge Reps Smith and Payne have about Ethiopia is an indication of the depth of understanding other representative might have. These two have had long services on the Foreign Relations Committee of the House and have had dealings with Ethiopian issues for long. Most of the other 480 or so representatives and 100 senators, could not even place Ethiopia on a map. It will matter only if we make it matter by reminding them that we as their constituents want them to vote one way or the other.
All of this amounts to these two points. First, both Democrats and Republicans are potential advocates for our cause if only we made the right plays. Second, we don’t have anywhere near enough support for our cause to be castigating let alone casting aside any political party as a disloyal partner. As they say in this country, you should never burn your bridges. You may need to cross that river again. We should not be too quick to condemn or write off the Democratic Party. Throwing ill conceived tantrums is one of those features of our national character that I often regret. I hope, going forward, we will be mindful of how we discuss our political leaders here in the U.S. as well as in Ethiopia.