John Yarmuth Hits Race Head On

Last Friday night I attended the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. This dinner happens the night before the state Democratic convention, and usually consists of your standard political speeches: lots of jokes about Republicans, lots of calls for hard work and unity, and lots of cheerleading. The usual rubber-chicken fare.

This time, though, Congressman John Yarmuth — former independent newspaper publisher and long-time editorial writer not afraid to speak his mind — decided to skip the empty calories of political rhetoric and lay out a banquet course rarely seen in such settings: a speech on Democrats and race, served with passion and purpose.

When he started, you could feel the tension build. You could almost hear the 1,000-plus attendees thinking, “This wasn’t on the menu.” And then, “… oh my, he’s really going to talk about it.”

John Yarmuth called out the elephant in the room, and it wasn’t the Republicans. Ignoring the silence one could cut with a knife, he kept going.

You keep going over the fold, and I’ll share how it turned out.

I, too, was not prepared for this speech in this setting — but I wasn’t shocked. John has never been reticent about speaking to the issues, even if it steps on toes (anybody’s toes). His campaign in 2006 was a refreshing blend of honesty (“Look, let’s get one thing straight right up front … I’m a liberal.”) and self-deprecation (the famous “Golf with Saddam” commercial).

Still … to talk about race within the party and within the state, after the primary we’ve just had and with both sides in the same room, seemed like a recipe for disaster. Here were lots of Clinton supporters, some Obama supporters … and, if polls are to believed, probably some racists as well.

Not a problem at the beginning, as John started out with pretty standard stuff — although his opening sentence foreshadowed what was to come:

Party events are about politics and politics is about winning elections, and it’s natural that the speakers tend to focus on winning elections instead of governing. We are in the midst of an incredible resurgence of the Democratic Party, with a string of significant electoral victories and a nation that resoundingly rejects the policies and governance of our rival party. It is, of course, a great time to be a Democrat. National polls show that our fellow citizens prefer us over the Republicans by record margins. They want Democrats to control Congress, and they want a Democrat in the White House. They trust us to repair the economy by almost two to one over the GOP, they trust us to resolve the health care crisis, the education crisis, the housing foreclosure crisis, and to protect our environment, by huge majorities. They trust us to solve the energy shortage, and they even trust us just as much as Republicans to protect our homeland.

Yes, it is a good time to be a Democrat, and I am proud not only to be a Democrat but a Kentucky Democrat.

After a few more standard comments about our success in last year’s governor’s race, and our chances this fall, suddenly John changed gears, and we all realized this wasn’t going to be another standard political speech:

But tonight, I want to talk about a special challenge facing Democrats here in Kentucky. In recent weeks, racial bigotry has reared its ugly head in our state. We have been labeled, perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, as one of the most racist states in the country based on exit polling from our presidential primary. On the one hand it would be unfair when considering Senator Hillary Clinton’s success in Kentucky, to ignore the obvious truth that she is one of the all-time great leaders in American politics. These two Senators combined to form perhaps the strongest primary in the history of American Presidential politics. That is, in large part, due to the strength, endurance, and compassion of Senator Clinton, and her victory here can never and should never be explained away.

Still, the country sees exit polls that do not paint a pretty picture.  They indicate that one out of five Democrats who voted on May 20 considered race a major factor in their vote, and 90% of those voters cast their ballot against the African-American candidate. I am sure every one in this room has heard subtle and not-so-subtle racial or sexist attacks directed at our party’s candidates.

Lots of chair and body shifting going on … then quiet, weight, indeed even significance settling on the room. And then, the first of the bombshell lines that lifted this speech to another plane.

Today, on the eve of Senator Clinton throwing her support behind our Party’s presumptive nominee, I can only hope and pray that, when President Obama takes the oath of office next January, those who are offended by his race are open to being impressed by his talents.

“President Obama” — the phrase rang out in the hall like a clarion bell. I don’t think any of us had heard those two words put together in that way. Just the utterance of the phrase electrified the room, and brought many of us to our feet. But John wasn’t done …

But I also hope that those of us here tonight, and the overwhelming majority of Democrats who judge every individual, and specifically every candidate, by the content of their character, will meet our responsibility to combat this racism with resolve and confidence. Whenever we encounter a Democrat who says he or she cannot vote for a black man, we must not walk away and let that blind hatred fester. We must defend not just Barack Obama, but the legacy we inherit as members of the Democratic Party, the party that truly reflects the diversity of our great country.

In the face of riots, violence, and bitter hatred, this party integrated our military, our places of work, and our schools.  It was Democrats who successfully fought for civil rights, voting rights, and housing rights.  When this country faced its darkest hours, Democrats summoned the courage to carry the torch forward.  That is our shared history when things were tough, and as we stand on the brink of something truly special, that should also be our future as the nation turns to Democratic leaders for hope.  It is our willingness, or actually even our eagerness to embrace diversity that will make us the dominant party in this increasingly diverse society.

It was during this section that I sensed the mood in the room shifting. Shifting from unease to thoughtfulness, from focus on the moment and on this year’s elections to a vision of what we have fought for, what we as Democrats have stood for. You could almost feel the room coming together, uniting in a determination to face the demon among us, call it out, and defeat it.

So when you hear the racist messages, or you read them on the internet, don’t hesitate to respond. After all, if race were really a factor in the ability of a man or a woman to be president, what happened to George Bush?  His Presidency pretty much shatters the myth of white supremacy once and for all.

When someone argues that if it’s okay for blacks to vote for blacks and women to vote for women, it should be okay for whites to vote for whites, you should answer that there is a world of difference between voting for a candidate out of pride and voting against one out of irrational fear and hatred.

In any event, we must resolve to answer racism whenever we encounter it. We cannot let anyone, particularly anyone who calls him or herself a Democrat, think that racist politics is acceptable. If we do we may still win elections, but we will never realize our potential as a party or live up to our legacy.

And then came the final denoument that brought the crowd to its feet:

We have an opportunity to elect a black man President of the United States— not because he is a black man, but because this black man is among the most inspirational, thoughtful, capable individuals of his generation.

I became a Democrat for one reason: Democrats believe that every person matters. That’s why we have taken control of Congress, that’s why the American people have confidence in us, that’s why young people are showing up to vote as never before, and that’s why when we elect President Obama on November 4 we will govern successfully and restore faith in America’s future.

Please join me in resolving to work hard to make every Kentuckian proud of the historic step we are about to take.

::

As I was walking out of the dinner, I ran into Ryan Alessi, the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He commented that John’s speech was going to be the lead for his story about the dinner, and asked me what I thought of it. My answer to him is a good way to close this diary:

“Some speeches are good, and some are important. This one was both.”

 

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