By Juan Williams - 09/02/13 10:39 AM EDT
The big surprise at the Republican National Committee’s lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was the loud ovation for an elderly white conservative.
The tall, 70-year-old Congressman hobbled to the front of the room with a cane. He had to be helped up the stairs to the stage. But once he reached the microphone, his call for Congress to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had the crowd scrambling to get to their feet and applaud him.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) defied political stereotypes and several other Republicans when he announced an end-of-the-year deadline for reviving the pre-clearance provision of the VRA.
“I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent discrimination,” said Sensenbrenner to repeated cheers. He was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when a bipartisan group approved reauthorization of the VRA in 2006.
“This is something that has to be done by the end of the year so that a revised and constitutional Voting Rights Act is in place by the 2014 elections — both the primaries and general election,” Sensenbrenner told his largely black Republican audience.
As a black Democrat, I was caught off-guard at the very start of the congressman’s speech. He began with a story about driving south as a boy with his father. The wealthy young man from Wisconsin was troubled by the servile status of blacks — they pumped the gas but a white man came out to get the money — and the separate restrooms and water fountains.
He said he had long conversations with his father about racial injustice and told his father something was very wrong in that part of America.
The tale carried an echo of President Lincoln’s story about traveling south as a boy to St. Louis and New Orleans in the early 1800s and being horrified at seeing a slave auction. In both cases, these northern Republicans became political leaders with a commitment to ending the structured, legal inequality of their day.
Sensenbrenner told the overflow lunch crowd that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has started hearings on possible ways to repair the VRA, recently called him a “civil rights icon.” But the congressman sees himself differently: “I am not an icon,” Sensenbrenner told the crowd last Monday. “I’m a mechanic and my job is to fix the Voting Rights Act.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling called for Congress to update the formula under which states are forced to accept pre-clearance for any changes to their voting procedures. The high court ruled that Congress’ criteria is “based on 40 year old facts” and outdated, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts.
According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in July, only 33 percent of Americans approved of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the VRA while 51 percent disapproved.
But Sen. Charles Schumer (D- N.Y.), along with other leading Democrats, has expressed deep pessimism about getting the Republican majority in the House to take any steps to restore the formula that is central to the law.
Schumer even expressed doubt that enough Senate Republicans would vote with the Democrat majority in the Senate to put together the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster of any new legislation.
But last Monday, Sensenbrenner set his gaze beyond today’s partisan paralysis on Capitol Hill. He appeared to be without a worry about any potential backlash within his own party.
Apparently he is building a wall of protection. After his speech, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that both Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have publicly stated their support for fixing the VRA.
And his presence at the RNC lunch also suggests that his political crusade has the blessings of the national party and party chairman Reince Priebus. The chairman is on record as telling a reporter after the Supreme Court ruling that “voter suppression obviously has no place in our world or our society.”
In his speech, Sensenbrenner said: “The first thing we have to do is take the monkey wrench that the court threw in it, out of the Voting Rights Act, and then use that monkey wrench to be able to fix it so that [the newly written law] is alive, well, constitutional and impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects.”
To repeat: Here was a senior House Republican, without any fear of anyone challenging his conservative credentials, calling out “the usual suspects” — white and southern Republicans who seek partisan advantage by limiting the minority vote.
At the very same time, Sensenbrenner’s fellow Republicans in states such as Texas and North Carolina are busy calling for voter identification laws and limiting voting hours. They know those tactics will help Republicans by suppressing the turnout of young people, blacks, and Hispanics — all groups that favor the Democrats.
There are other Republicans of the same mind as Sensenbrenner. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” condemned the push for tighter voter identification by the GOP in the south.
He said explicitly that the “procedures” are being put in place by Republican governors and legislatures to “make it likely that fewer Hispanics and African Americans might vote.” Powell predicted that this southern strategy is going to “backfire because these people are going to come out and do what they have to do in order to vote and I encourage that.”
At last week’s march, President Clinton put the need for revision of the VRA in stark terms: “A great democracy,” he said, “does not make it harder to vote than it does to buy an assault weapon.” Clinton’s words made for a great sound bite.
But for my money, the most important political speech commemorating the great march was the speech given by an older, white Republican from Wisconsin.