And the Pitch: Cong. Mel Watt Steadies Game in Washington

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

In 1963, a young man named Melvin Watt tried out as a pitcher for the freshman baseball team at the University of North Carolina.

Today, Mr. Watt does not recall the other hopefuls as being appreciably different in playing ability. But there was at least one thing that set him aside from the other players: he was African-American, and the others were not.

"I got cut, and I never really addressed the question if I got cut because I was black, or because I wasn't talented enough," Mr. Watt said.

Had he made the cut, he would have become the first African-American on a University of North Carolina athletic team.

In the years since, Mr. Watt has made a much bigger cut: In 1992, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from North Carolina's 12th District, making him one of two African-Americans elected to Congress by North Carolina in the 20th century.

Last December, Mr. Watt unanimously was elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Watt also has founded MEL PAC, or the Motivating Energetic Leadership political action committee. The committee raises funds to help elect African-Americans to office. Last Saturday, the congressman hosted a MEL PAC fundraiser at the Oak Bluffs home of Cathy and Russ Ashton.

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In a conversation with the Gazette one day before the event, the congressman spoke about where African-Americans now stand in the life of the nation, and what the future may hold.

His own experience 42 years ago on the baseball diamonds of Chapel Hill gives weight to his view that the economic and political hurdles faced by African-Americans often are more subtle and complex than the blatant racism of an America not too long ago.

"I think a combination of things were happening," said Mr. Watt, who recalls having "a blast" trying out. "They obviously weren't recruiting black athletes. [The other players] weren't any better than me, but they had scholarships. They had made investments in these kids."

As such, he said, the baseball officials weren't going to tap anyone, black or white, to take the place of a scholarship athlete.

"To the extent race was a factor, it was a factor before we got out on the baseball field," he said. "It wasn't a factor on the baseball field."

Mr. Watt said the historic discrimination against blacks has taken its toll against the group's efforts to succeed. And that is why he supports measures such as affirmative action.

Speaking of discrimination against African-Americans, Mr. Watt said, "Some of that today is not so much a result of attitude as it used to be, as it is a result of where the starting line is. If you're running a 100-yard race, and the other person is at the 60-yard line and you're at zero or the starting line, making up that difference is just an unbelievably hard thing to do, because you have to run faster, or the people in front of you have got to slow down.

"And I haven't seen any inclination of the people in front of us, the people who have assets, the people who have education, the people who have wealth, the people who have good jobs, they're not slowing down," he said. "They're trying to run faster and faster."

Discrimination absolutely has lessened during his lifetime, Mr. Watt said, citing key legislation to protect voting rights and equal employment opportunity.

"Taking the long view, you can't help but say, ‘Yeah, we're making progress,' " he said, adding: "Taking the long view, you can't help but say we have a long, long way to go to achieve equality."

With Republicans in control of the administration and both houses of Congress, these are not the easiest times to push a legislative agenda favorable to minorities.

Mr. Watt, who serves on the House financial services and judiciary committees, keeps an eye out for alliances across the aisle on an issue-by-issue basis. He also works with the Hispanic and Asian-American caucuses on issues of mutual concern.

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Even if the caucuses cannot necessarily get the legislation they want passed, Mr. Watt said, "Sometimes you can stop bad things from happening. We've had some success in doing that."

The compassionate conservatism touted by the Republicans' leader, President George W. Bush, has failed to become reality, Mr. Watt said.

"I think a lot of people bought into the proposition that there could be such a thing as a compassionate conservative," Mr. Watt said. "I know a lot of people who voted for George Bush the first time around and thinking that these two things were not inconsistent with each other.

"At some level, I think they are not inconsistent, but compassion without services and resources get you to the same result as a lack of compassion, except that somebody might be nice to you," he said. "You're not making any movement.

"And even the compassion part of it has given way to catering to a much more conservative element of the Republican Party has certainly made it impossible to get any resources to make the compassion meaningful," he said.

"My sense of George Bush as a person is a decent man," Mr. Watt said. "But he hasn't been able to or willing to devote any kind of resources to meaningfully make that caring person produce the kind of results that you would hope caring would suggest."

Then there are Bush initiatives that Mr. Watt said have hurt African-American interests in the United States, such as the war against Iraq or his nomination of conservative judges.

The Iraq war is draining resources, he said, that otherwise could go to support worthwhile ideas such as No Child Left Behind, a federal program that holds schools responsible to bring along all their students, rather than reaching an average level of achievement that can mask better performance by wealthier whites and worse performance by poorer blacks. The program is an instance where the president reaped the rhetorical benefits, but failed to deliver on results, he said.

Mr. Watt and the black caucus also have worked to oppose the appointment of deeply conservative judges such as Janice Rogers Brown, the African-American daughter of a sharecropper. Ms. Brown recently was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

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"Joyce Rogers Brown has an abysmal record, not only a judicial record but an abysmal rhetorical record," Mr. Watt said. The caucus, he said, wanted to make certain that she would be blocked as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

Political solace hasn't always been easy for Mr. Watt to find, even on the baseball diamond, where he's long been a pitcher for the Democrats in the annual Congressional baseball game.

Mr. Watt, who has been named most valuable player several times, didn't have his best stuff in this year's contest, which was won by the Republicans by a score of 19-10.

"The Republicans have younger athletes than we do," he said. "I keep wondering where they keep finding these young conservative guys from. Young people used to be progressive.

"They keep getting younger and younger guys, and we keep getting older and older," he said. "Until we can reverse that trend, it's going to be a long, long game for us."