Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Harvard-educated lawyer, former longtime Brooklyn Congressman and now the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, spoke on the Senate floor yesterday (Tuesday, June 25) to mark the sixth anniversary of the Shelby v. Holder decision.
The landmark Supreme Court ruling by a conservative majority in 2013 undercut decades of progress by eliminating key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Civil rights advocates say it opened the door to a wave of discriminatory measures designed to disenfranchise African American and other voters. Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic nominee for Governor of Georgia, testified before the House Judiciary Committee (also on Tuesday) about the impact of voter suppression tactics in today’s political arena.
Following his Senate speech, ESSENCE caught up with Schumer to discuss voting rights and other issues, including health care, his fight to get Harriet Tubman on the $20 dollar bill, and Black women’s electoral power heading into the 2020 elections.
ESSENCE: Why was it important for you to speak on the Senate floor about the Shelby decision?
Chuck Schumer: It was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the history of America. The Shelby decision gutted the Voting Rights Act. Under the VRA we had made great progress in making it easier for people to vote, and making it much harder to discriminate against people of color. And [states] would have to get pre-approval from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in making changes. Shelby took that away. And it sort of eviscerated the VRA, which people died for. And for which Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) got beaten in the head for.
ESSENCE: You’ve indicated a desire to replace current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) if the Democrats win the Senate in 2020. What will you do to protect voting rights?
CS: So if I become Majority Leader, one of my very highest priorities is gonna be to restore the VRA. All the protections and go further. And we’ve had Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) in the House take charge on this. [Editorial note: Sewell, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus has introduced H.R. 4, The Voting Rights Advancement Act, to help address the most egregious forms of recent voter suppression by developing a process to determine which states and localities with a recent history of voting rights violations must pre-clear election changes with the Department of Justice.]
And when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was part of this decision I lost all respect for him because he [essentially] said, “There’s no more bigotry, there’s no more discrimination.” And in the six years after eviscerating the VRA, 19 states had passed legislation that discriminated against people of color. That includes laws in North Carolina that the 4th Circuit said “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The next thing I will do if I become Majority Leader is America will have nationwide automatic voter registration. Too many people can’t vote because registration is difficult. Working people, many of them don’t have time to go down to the Board of Elections. Some places make it much harder to register if they don’t want poor people or people of color to register. They make times and availability very difficult. One place in Indiana put the voting place way out of the way where there was no parking and no public transportation.
And I will also fight for Washington D.C. statehood. This country was founded on no taxation without representation. Well, D.C. has taxation but no representation.
ESSENCE: When ESSENCE partnered with the Black Women’s Roundtable to do polling, affordable health care has topped the list of policy concerns for many Black women.
CS: President Trump recently did an interview with ABC News. And he said he would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) if he wins re-election and Republicans control the House and Senate. He also said he would announce a new health plan in a few months before the 2020 elections. This is a way that President Donald Trump has of taking away protection from Americans and particularly women and people of color. The ACA has been a huge benefit to all Americans. But for women’s health care, women who are often discriminated against, and of course people of color never had the same access to health care that others had. And the ACA has helped rectify that. …So taking this away would be awful. ACA has been a lifesaver for African Americans. We’ve gotta strengthen it, not attack it or sabotage it. President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate are now in court suing to undo President Obama’s ACA. The court date is July 9; they are arguing [that day] in court.
ESSENCE: You were instrumental in creating legislation for the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in upstate New York. Now you are pushing for Tubman on the $20 bill. But the Trump administration recently announced that the redesign would be delayed until 2028.
CS: We all know that African American women have made major contributions to this country. And for too long, they’ve not been recognized. Harriet Tubman is a New Yorker—and also a Marylander. I fought for years to make Tubman Park a reality. I authored, introduced, and passed legislation authorizing the park and lobbied federal officials to secure the establishment of the New York park. [Editorial note: there’s also a state and national park honoring Tubman in Maryland]
It was great that under President Barack Obama, then Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, said they were going to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. First time a woman, first time a person of color–even though those two groups have played such a major role in creating and making America the country that it is.
So the design was set to be released in 2020. And that would have [coincided] with the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote. It takes a while to do this. So now three years after [former] Secretary Lew announced the accelerated redesign of the $20, all we’ve seen are delays. First, the official word from the White House was the delay was required to accommodate anti-counterfeiting measures. Now if you believe that, I have a bridge I can sell you. It’s just not credible with all the resources of the Treasury that we can’t produce this; we can land a man on the moon, we can produce a counterfeit free $20 bill.
So this is shameful. Putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill is a long overdue way to recognize the disparity between people of color and everyone else and women and men. So I asked the Treasury Inspector General [Eric M. Thorson] to do an investigation into why this is happening. The request seeks a review of the involvement of the interagency process related to the redesign—including the Secret Service, Federal Reserve, and the White House – to ensure that political considerations did not taint the process to recognize Harriet Tubman’s heroic legacy.
And he [recently] agreed. They [the Trump Administration] have no good explanation for why they are doing it. This will put heat on them to stick to the 2020 deadline. And I’m gonna fight tooth and nail `til it’s done. A PDF of Schumer’s letter to the Treasury Inspector is here.
ESSENCE: As you know, Black women vote in significant numbers in the nation’s elections. What would you say to this key demographic as we head into 2020 to tackle voting rights and some of the issues we have discussed?
CS: Black women are one of the most important voting blocs in the Democratic Party, that’s for sure.
Well, four letters, V-O-T-E. And get all your friends and neighbors to vote. We have a real opportunity to defeat Donald Trump and to get a Democratic Senate. If we have a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House, and a Democratic President, we will do really good things for the American public. Whether it’s on voting rights, health care, infrastructure, [criminal justice issues] and helping to support businesses run by women and people of color.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.