By Mike Soraghan - The Hil - June 6, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) conciliatory tone turned sharp on Thursday when Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) pressed him on how there needs to be healing in the Democratic Party.
"Look, Diane," Obama said, according to a participant who attended the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) meeting. "John McCain, if he's elected, is going to pick a Supreme Court that will roll back every gain women have made in the last 50 years."
Seeming frustrated, Obama started talking more bluntly about why women should be supporting him over Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), whatever their feelings about the divisive Democratic primary campaign.
"He can be pretty direct," said the CBC source. "It was a pretty lively meeting."
The direct approach has its risks. As a woman and a former supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Watson is one of the CBC members whom Obama needs to win over.
And her protests that the party still needs healing are a reminder of the lingering bitterness left over from a campaign that some say had sexist and racial overtones.
During the primary, Watson said she had received political threats for her support of the former first lady. And Watson had publicly criticized Obama for opposing the CBC's effort to cut off federal funds to the Cherokee Nation. The CBC is upset with the Cherokee for excluding Freedmen — descendants of slaves once owned by tribal members — from tribal membership.
Obama's meeting with the CBC represented an early test of his leadership as the Democratic nominee, especially because some in the Black Caucus were ardent backers of Clinton and want her to be Obama's running mate.
Obama started the meeting on an inclusive note, telling members who had supported Clinton "that was then, and this is now," according to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.).
"He said he understands how those of us in politics get involved in supporting people, through friendships or geography or relationships," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), a former John Edwards supporter who campaigned for Obama in the North Carolina primary. "He said he'd been involved in that himself."
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Clinton supporter who predicted Obama's victory long before he claimed it, said he felt the olive branch was appreciated.
"Several members expressed appreciation to him for saying that," Cleaver said. "There's still emotions connected to that campaign. He took a major step in being a magnet to these people."
What impressed Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was when Obama told them, "If Hillary had won, the first thing he would have told his supporters is that [they] should support her."
Some participants also reportedly pressed him on whether the campaign would provide "street money," or "walking-around money" — the campaign cash dispensed to people to drive voters to the polls on Election Day. Obama said the campaign wouldn't provide it, because he's relying on his large network of volunteers to handle Election Day turnout.
Fence-mending was the point of Obama's stops in and around Capitol Hill this week. His campaign scheduled meetings with members of the Hispanic, Black and women's caucuses. Each represents a community with longstanding ties to the Clintons. Hispanic members have pointedly said that Obama needs to reach out more to their community.
It didn't always work. Some female members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus reportedly stayed away from the photo opportunity after the event.
The women's caucus meeting was canceled Thursday because it conflicted with House votes.
More than one-third of the 42 members of the CBC supported Clinton for president, even though black voters overwhelmingly supported Obama in the primaries. A few members, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), initially backed Clinton and then switched to Obama.
Some members have reportedly feared that they might face primary challenges or other political retribution for not having supported their only Senate member.
The Illinois senator will need the CBC's full support as he faces McCain in the fall. Black voters are a key element of Obama's voter base, and he enjoys strong support among them. But he needs them to turn out at the polls, and that's where black elected officials, whether they were for Clinton or Obama, can help.
Republicans have cited getting 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio as a key factor in President Bush winning his second term.
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