In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, most notably the requirement that states with a history of voter suppression obtain federal permission to change their voting laws. Those states are in the South. The road to restore that act runs through Wisconsin. “I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act,” U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said in August, surprising attendees at a GOP luncheon commemorating the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Though they didn’t lose their lunch, party members — whose colleagues in some states had already moved to enact strict voter restrictions — weren’t expecting that announcement. An RNC spokesman told me then that Sensenbrenner wasn’t speaking for the party. Members of the other party didn’t all jump on the bandwagon, either. A spokesman for Democratic Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan said then that Nolan would support the idea — adding an asterisk: “assuming it’s straightforward.”
At a meeting Friday of the Trotter Group, a small association of African American columnists, a trio of civil rights leaders not known for being Republican cheerleaders assured me it would be.
“Sensenbrenner has a history,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noting the Wisconsin congressman’s work in 1982 and 2006 on reauthorization of the act (contrary to public perception, it was not passed for all time in 1965 and was subject to renewal.)
“He has a deep commitment to these issues. He stood in the well of the House (in 2006) and defeated or spoke against four amendments, any one of which had it been adopted would have been a killer amendment,” Henderson said, adding the only way the act can be restored — and the only way it ever passed in the first place — is through a bipartisan effort.
“If we get caught up in the perception this is Democrats versus Republicans, it’s dead on arrival,” he said, noting that he and NAACP Washington director Hilary Shelton, who joined him at the columnists’ meeting along with NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, also attended the Republican luncheon in the summer.
They didn’t come for the food.