2005-08-12 / Community

‘I Was Guided By My Conscience, Not Politics’

By Howard Schwach


Wave Managing Editor Howard Schwach (left) with Congressman Gregory Meeks after the news conference.Wave Managing Editor Howard Schwach (left) with Congressman Gregory Meeks after the news conference. More than 50 years ago a Freshman Senator by the name of John F. Kennedy wrote a book entitled “Profiles In Courage.”

The book, which detailed eight men, including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis, who had risked their careers to vote their conscience in seminal Senate votes, was an instant and controversial best-seller.

A promotion for the book at the time said, “[Kennedy] chose to illustrate their acts of integrity, where they stood alone against tremendous political and social pressures for what they thought was right.”

Congressman Gregory Meeks speaks with reporters at his press conference on CAFTA on Tuesday morning.
Congressman Gregory Meeks speaks with reporters at his press conference on CAFTA on Tuesday morning. Congressman Gregory Meeks, who is under fire for being one of fifteen Democrats who voted for the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement, sounds like he would like to join that august group.

Meeks addressed the reasons he went against Democratic Party orthodoxy to vote for the bill at a press conference for community newspapers called at his Jamaica office on Tuesday.

“I’ve always been opposed to voting politically,” Meeks told the reporters and editors from several weekly papers. “I have to go where my conscience tells me to go.”

Meeks says that he has always been in favor of free and open trade policies.

“Trade is generally good for a district such as the Sixth with a major airport,” he said. “But this was different, and I wanted to be sure of the facts before I voted.”

The Far Rockaway Representative said that he started a long “open door” policy that brought in constituents, representatives of both labor and business groups and other politicians to his door.

Then, he says, he spoke to the heads of state from the majority of Central American nations. He visited a number of the nations involved and spoke with their labor and business leaders.

“After all that, I decided that the bill was a good deal for New York, for Central America and for South America as well.”

“My job is to create jobs in New York City,” he argued. “This bill will create jobs in the export and import business. In New York, we have FedEx, DHL, United Parcel, and financial services business. All of those will benefit from a growth in the import and export market.”

When asked if the bill might not actually reduce jobs because manufacturers would be able to seek lower costs in Central America, Meeks said that those jobs have already left New York.”

“We lost those manufacturing jobs to the south more than ten years ago,” he said. “We’re not going to lose any jobs that are actually done in New York.”

Meeks says that the “bill would have passed by 300 votes [rather than two] if not for the lobbying of the sugar industry.

“The sugar industry might be hurt by this bill, but there is no sugar industry in New York,” he added.

“Look,” he said, “80 percent of all the imports from this area already come in duty free, but we are not allowed to export to them. That makes for a bad trade deficit. Under this bill, they have to accept our exports and that levels the trade balance [in America’s favor].”

“The effect of the bill on labor in New York will be minimal,” he concluded. “There will be a net gain in terms of jobs {in New York]. What do we lose? Some manufacturing jobs, but New York is a service industry, not a manufacturing one.

We will not lose those jobs.

We will not lose construction jobs.

We’ll help the upstate farmers open new markets and we will get some gains in the perception of America on the part of other nations”

He added that the bill will help the poor people of Central American, who, he said, “live under deplorable conditions.”

He bridled at the suggestion that the gain of jobs in that area would come at the expense of local workers.

“Somebody who is making zero a week will be glad to get $20 a week, he said. “We have to do credible things to change a system where people live like that.”

When asked whether there were enough safeguards to insure that the labor laws in the Central American nations would become more humane, he said, “We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is not a perfect bill, but union leaders in those nations told me that a more trade was needed, and this was one way to get it.”

“We have to make stronger democracies in Central America, and we have to show our southern neighbors that we are helping in that effort. There is a symbolic piece to this bill that cannot be understated,” Meeks said.

He was still undecided on the day of the vote, he told reporters. He says that his mind was made up when he saw a quote from Martin Luther King in a magazine he was reading.

“There are times that you look at doing the popular thing or the political thing,” Meeks paraphrased the quote. “In the end, if you follow your conscience, you are doing the right thing.”

Meeks was asked how he could reestablish his ties to the labor movement, ties that many believe have been damaged by his vote.

“The key is to call them and tell them why I voted for the bill. I didn’t vote against the unions, I have a 96 percent voting record in favor of union interests. We do not agree on this bill, but they should understand that my conscience would not allow me to support them.”

He was angered, however, by the Working Families Party, which called for his ouster from important Congressional committees and intimated that business interests bought his vote.

“I can’t be bought,” he angrily told the reporters. “If labor does not give me another dime, I will still vote 92 percent for labor on issues of interest.

All a man has is his integrity and it angers me when the party calls my integrity into question.”

Some Democratic officials have talked of disciplining the fifteen party members who voted for the bill, but Meeks says he has not heard of anything official. In addition, a new bill was proposed in Congress that would take America out of the pact. So far, that bill has received no traction.

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