Congressman Bobby Rush, the Color of Change and the Color of Truth

In the next Congress, Chicago's Bobby Rush wants to the the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. While there is much to like and admire about the congressman's long career, Color of Change's James Rucker points out, putting Bobby Rush in charge of safeguarding a free and open internet is putting a corporate-funded fox in charge of the people's henhouse.

Congressman Bobby Rush, the Color of Change and the Color of Truth

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

This is a corrected version of the story, replacing an earlier draft with some mistakes in attribution inadvertently posted here. Our apologies for any inconvenience.

Till at least the mid 1990s, large corporate donors tended to shun black elected officials in favor of their white counterparts. This was good news for black politics. It meant black candidates in black districts could raise enough cash locally and from sources like labor unions to win. The lack of corporate money behind black politicians kept them more firmly tied to the needs and desires of their human constituents.

Sadly, this is no longer the case. A tsunami of corporate cash donated to black candidates and officials has loosened, and often cut their ties to the actual needs of African American communities. In this era, many black elected officials have become just as devoted servants of their corporate campaign donors as many of their white counterparts have always been. Given this new reality, the longstanding taboo against sharp criticism of black elected officials, except for black Republicans, who are almost traitors by definition, is crumbling.

So it is that James Rucker, the co-founder of Color of Change recently penned an open letter to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi opposing the elevation of Chicago congressman Bobby Rush to ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet (CTI) in the next session of Congress. Congressman Rush has taken personal exception to this, and leveled charges of his own against Color of Change. A host of traditional civil rights organizations, mostly speaking through the DC telecom industry mouthpieces like the Minority Media Telecommunications Council have risen up to defend Congressman Rush, even to the point of accusing Rucker and Color of Change of “incivility” in their criticism of Congressman Rush.

It's fair to ask why BAR didn't contact Congressman Rush's office for comment or input into this story. The answer is that with multibillion dollar telecom corporations Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, and the whole of corporate media in his corner, with Cathy Hughes, Tom Joyner, ADE, and the constellation of old-time civil rights organizations --- themselves heavily dependent on telecom funding --- with all of this backing, Congressman Rush doesn't need Black Agenda Report to get his side of the story out. We can read or hear it anywhere, and quote it.

We agree with Rucker that there is much to admire in Rush's long career of public service. But on this set of issues, the congressman has been very wrong for a long time. BAR makes no claim to be impartial. But Rush's defenders are organizations like ADE, and the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, who have received millions in telecom dollars, so they equally impartial. Our claim, and Ruckers, is to represent the public interest in a free and open internet, and the needs of black and oppressed communities across the country, for whom universal and cheap broadband will be as vital as paved roads to economic development and social participation in the new century.

BAR called Color of Change's James Rucker yesterday for his thoughts on the controversy, and what the priorities of African American communities are in the areas of broadband and the internet. Rucker first explained to us why he wrote the letter to Pelosi.

It's true that the congressman has done some great things in his career. But he is wrong this issue. At every turn since at least 2006, Congressman Rush has aligned himself with Comcast, with AT&T, with Verizon, and the rest of the telecom industry to give them increased control over the Internet.”

For those reasons, installing Congressman Rush as ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee responsible for regulating the internet is a bad idea. It goes against the notion of a free and open internet, even against the expressed wishes of President Obama who has said many times that he favors a free and open internet. Speaker Pelosi herself has taken a similar position. We hope Speaker Pelosi will take this into consideration when she decides who will be the senior Democrat, the ranking member on that subcommittee...”

Mr. Rucker has a point. In today's America internet access is about as much a luxury as electricity or hot water. You pay your bills over the internet or you pay a surcharge. Many government services are available only over the web. Even in the community colleges serving poor areas, quizes, exams and much of the material formerly conveyed in take-home textbooks is now only available over the web. Without fast, universally available broadband, people in minority communities can't look for jobs, can't pursue their educations, can't avail themselves of government services, can't start and conduct new business enterprises. In the coming era, cheap, available broadband access will be as vital to community economic development and quality of life as paved roads.

Congressman Rush and his defenders reacted to Rucker's letter with the claims that Color of Change is funded by Silicon Valley interests, and that regulating the powerful telecom industry will stifle innovation and prevent the creation of jobs. David Honig, a telecom shill blogging at Huffington Post accused Rucker of "incivility." Here's what James Rucker had to say about that.

The Congressman's defenders say Color of Change is funded by Silicon Valley. That's ridiculous. When Google teamed up with Verizon to cut a deal that would hurt our people by ending network neutrality we were among the first to stand up and oppose it.

It's a myth we hear all the time, this trickle-down notion that if we give rich and powerful corporation even more money and power, that they'll take care of us, they'll create jobs and prosperity. It's a myth. The real world simply doesn't work that way...

We understand that companies are in business to make money. But public officials are supposed to serve the public interest. That's not too much to expect. It's what we have to demand. It's hard for politicians and organizations that take millions of dollars from the telecom industry to serve as public servants or reliable representatives of our community's interests.””

We think Mr. Rucker is onto something here. The internet and the backbone over which it runs was neither conceived nor created by private enterprise. It was invented by scientists working on the government dime. It should be run and regulated in the public interest. The original internet backbone was built out almost entirely at taxpayer expense. When the technology matured in the 1990s, telecom corporations did not invest in any innovative research to make it work better. They spent millions to lobby Congress and the White House, persuading them to privatize the taxpayer-built internet backbone, to turn it over to them for next to nothing. Telecom lobbyists, among them Obama's current FCC chairman wrote and passed the infamous Telecommunications Act of 1996.

That legislation required the federal government to sell the internet backbone to giant telecom firms at pennies on the dollar. This is the kind of deal oft referred to as a “public-private partnership.” Afterwards, those same privileged corporations, the “private partners” received tens or hundreds of billions in tax breaks and subsidies to expand that backbone and the last mile to our doors. They continue to access and service it under public streets, roads and highways, also the property of local governments which mostly receive no benefits and are often prohibited by state law from significantly regulating rates, access or much of anything else.

Rucker pointed out in a Huffington Post article, that a charity affiliated with Congressman Rush had received a million dollar donation from the telecom industry, and that AT&T and Verizon were among his top campaign donors.

Finally we noted that President Obama's term is half over, and Republicans would control Congress beginning in January. Although the president campaigned on promises to enforce network neutrality, preserving a relatively free and open internet, his FCC chairman has refused to assert his agency's lawful authority. We asked for Rucker's thoughts on this.

I believed President Obama when he declared himself a fierce advocate of network neutrality and a free and open internent. The lame duck session of Congress is a priceless opportunity for him to lead on this issue. But even with Republicans running the next Congress, it's still not too late for him to have the FCC step up and declare its authority to regulate the internet in the public interest. There will be substantial support for network neutrality in this and in the next Congress....”

Telecom industry propaganda would have us believe that the digital divide is a thing of the past. It's not. Minority communities are still under a regime of digital redlining, a regime imposed by the telecoms as a core feature of their business model. Guaranteeing network neutrality, regulating the telecom industry in the public interest are the beginnings of fixing that.

While somewhat less optimistic about the president's intentions on net neutrality, we wholeheartedly support the efforts of Color of Change to stand up for the people's interest in a free and open internet. And like we said, if you want Congressman Rush's, and Comcast's and AT&T's and Verizon's side of the story, you can find it in lots of places. We'd rather be the place where you can find the truth.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. He's based in Marietta GA, and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)