Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Consensus as a Style of Leadership

BOND: I've seen over and over again, in things we've collected about your writing, talking about the necessity to seek consensus, to make a consensus. That's an important part of your leadership style?

BRAUN: Well, it has to be, because without consensus, without having people agree on moving in a direction together, everybody's frustrated and/or wasting their time. You have to talk to people in ways they can hear. I mean, a lot of times, you know, people want the same things in life. I mean, everybody really at the end of the day wants the same things. How they see their interests is where the divisions start to come in, and if you are a legislator and you want to get somebody to your point of view, then what you want to do is go and talk to them about your vision in words they can understand and hear.

I'll tell you a quick story and this is from my state legislative days. This is actually another one of my favorite stories and I'm getting a chance to put my stories on tape with you… When I was in the state legislature, the poor people in Illinois had not received a cost-of-living increase in over ten years. The guy I succeeded who had stepped down had been trying to get a cost-of-living increase for welfare recipients for ten years and had always failed. And with inflation, we'd gone through the years of almost 20 percent inflation, it was really hard times for the poorest of the poor in Illinois, so I got down there and filed a bill calling for a cost-of-living increase. Nobody had bothered to tell me that the way you pass legislation— because I was that kind of new— was that you went to the leadership, and the leadership told you what they were going to pass and let you carry a bill for them. Or you went and said "I've got this idea," and they said yes or no.

I just thought I had to go and convince my colleagues to vote for it.

Well, there were 177 people in the Illinois House under the old system. I actually made up — pulling back on my U.S. attorney training, I had folders for every legislator that said how many poor people there were in their district, how many aged, blind and disabled, how many dah dah dah, you know, and what the situation was in their district. And I went around and talked to 159 of them. I wish I still had the little check sheet, because I'd go and I'd talk to somebody and check them off, and one of the people I talked to was a guy named Webber Borchers, and Webber Borchers was one of these real rightwing nut cases, frankly. He was a John Bircher who had actually spent time in jail for having tapped some of the phones of some of the leftist activists on the University of Illinois campus. I mean, he was that kind of out there, but I didn't know this because I had done the homework on the district, but I had not done as much homework as I should have on the individual legislators. So I went and I sat down with Representative Borchers and I tried to talk to him about why he was a Republican, why he should support this because of the poor people in his district.

He says, "I can't vote for that because the people in my district are buying lobsters with food stamps and driving Cadillac cars on welfare," and he'd just go the whole — and I said, "But, no, Mr. Representative Borchers, look at this, you've got these many blind people in your district, you've got these many children," and I made the whole argument and he'd, "No, no." So I went on and —

Well, when the bill came up, when the bills were tallied, lo and behold, on the board, I had won and, of course, it was shock waves. It had made the news. I mean, it was like a big deal, "Like, oh, my goodness, we've passed? Now this is going to be on the governor's desk. What's the governor going to do?" It's passed the House where it had never passed, so this is great news. And one of my colleagues, a Republican, Susan Catania who helped worked the Republican side, she came over and we were celebrating in the aisles we were so happy, and Webber Borchers who was kind of crippled came over on his cane and he said, "Ms. Braun, I didn't vote for your bill. I just couldn't see my way clear to help them welfare cheats in my district take any more taxpayers' money. But I almost did, because you're the second-nicest colored lady I have ever met. Now, the first nicest has been working for us for 35 years, but you're the second-nicest colored lady." And, of course, Susan turned green, like, "Oh, my God," but I tell this story to say that even for Webber Borchers there was a point of reference and a set of interests that made sense to him. Now, his other prejudices may have overcome that, but my job as I saw it, was to make the case to him, and to make the case to enough others to win the legislature back.

BOND: Let me tell you a quick story. When I was in the Georgia House we had a bill to vote an appropriation for autistic children and I asked the guy sitting next to me who was an old veteran guy, I said, "What about this?" He said, "Well, you probably should vote for it." So the vote came up; I voted for it. He voted against it. I said, "Why'd you vote against it?" He said, "Bond, we have too many artistic children in Georgia now."