Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Political Career

BOND: Now, shift from the Philadelphia political scene to Congress, almost immediately you get appointed to the Steering and Policy Committee. I mean, that doesn't happen with a freshman. How'd that happen?

GRAY: Well, interesting story. Remember I told you I won the primary. Once you win the primary, you are going to be the Congressman, you know, unless you drop dead or something, because the district was 80 percent Democratic, 10 percent Republican, 10 percent independent. And what I did was immediately after winning the primary, I went to Washington. I came down to Washington, and went and met Tip O'Neill, went and met every one of the leaders of the House of Representatives on the Democratic side, every chairman I met, every subcommittee chairman, I went and introduced myself to them. And then one of the Philadelphia Congress persons, who later had some problems, a guy named Ray Lederer, took a liking to me. He was the old style from the old political machine of Philadelphia. And Ray just took a liking to me. And it was because, I guess, because my church was actually in his district. But he didn't know me.

BOND: So, excuse me, so your church is not in your Congressional district?

GRAY: No. It was actually two blocks out. But I mean, my church is a city church. People come from all over the city to the church. It's not a neighborhood church.

BOND: Okay. I don't want to interrupt the flow.

GRAY: Yeah. And so, Ray Lederer for some reason just took a liking to me. And so, I was talking to him about committee assignments, and you know, "What should I be doing?" – which is question I ask a lot of people. But a lot of them gave me a stock answer. Ray said, "Bill," he said, "there's something that you ought to try to do." He said, "The most powerful, important position in the freshman class in Congress is the Steering and Policy rep." He said, "That's what you ought to try and get." And I said, "Well, why?" And he says, "Because that person, for the next two years, will work with the leadership in selecting who gets on what committees. That's power. And secondly, you will be getting well known by the leadership, all the committee chairmen, all the people – they've got to come and ask for your vote, to get on Ways and Means, to get on Appropriations, to get on Interstate Commerce. And they've got to trade votes with you. And it's an opportunity that you can use to, you know, develop a real reputation here in this institution."

So, I had been thinking about president of the freshman class. And he said, "No, that's just a figurehead. Nobody cares about that. It's Steering and Policy. It meets once a week. It's chaired by the Speaker, and the Majority Leader, and the Majority Whip." And so, I started planning a campaign that summer, and the campaign was, I'm going to get known to every freshman who is coming in. So I wrote every freshman an immediate letter congratulating all the ones who won the Democratic primary. You know, some of them called me up and asked for help in various ways. You know, "Would you come out to my district? Would you help me with this person? Do you know Rev. Bond here in Atlanta, Georgia? Would you ask him to have a meeting maybe consider supporting me?" And sure, I'd call up Reverend Julian Bond, and, "Hey, how are you, Julian? You know so and so who is running for Congress? Would you meet with him? He just wants to talk to you about his candidacy." And so, when November came, and everybody got elected, the entire freshman class, all of them knew me, even though we hadn't met. So when we came to freshman orientation, the guy who was probably known better than anybody else was Bill Gray.

BOND: Now, maybe you don't know the answer, but other people could have done this. They probably wouldn't have had your contacts in the black clerical community around the country, but other people could have done this, could have campaigned for this. Why were you successful at it?

GRAY: Well, number one, I started in the summer. I started before getting elected. Most of the other Democrats were worried about a general election. I didn't have to worry about a general election. So I spent my time between the primary and general election, doing what? Reform politics in Philadelphia, fighting the charter change, and putting Rizzo out, and two, campaigning for what I wanted in the Congress that I wasn't going to be sworn into until January. So, when we got to freshman orientation, people who suddenly wanted to be Steering and Policy, were way behind the curve. I'll tell you who they were. There was a woman named Geraldine Ferraro. There was a guy named Tony Coelho, who had been an AA on Capitol Hill for a number of years, and knew his way around. There was a guy named Peter Peyser from New York, and there was a guy named Buddy Leach, from Louisiana. All of them had tremendous political experience. We ended up having an election on, I think, the next to the last day of freshman orientation. And. of course, my class was the biggest incoming class of freshman blacks – Julian Dixon, Mel Evans, Benny Stewart, and of course, my late and beloved friend Mickey Leland from Texas. And we were trying to figure out, they said, "Bill, you're going to do what?" "Hey, I'm running for Steering and Policy, man." They said, "You've got to be crazy. How are you going to do that?" And we ended up organizing and getting a little committee together, and whenever somebody said, "Yes," I'd say, "Would you go talk to so and so?"