In honor of Black History Month, we reached out to several prominent black leaders in the housing and mortgage industry to celebrate their success, learn from their experience and gain insight into the challenges facing the mortgage industry. Today we’re honored to share this interview with Congresswoman Gwen Moore, U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District.
Gwen reflects on the events of 2020, the storming of our Capitol, and how the pandemic shined a spotlight on racial inequality and economic disparity for Black Americans. She also offers a solution for bridging our country’s deep divisions and shares her hopes and priorities for 2021.
Representative Moore, we’re grateful to have you back for another Black History Month. A year ago, it seemed like there was so much to look forward to in Milwaukee: The end to cold weather was only three months away, Milwaukee was going to host the Democratic Convention and have the opportunity to be on the world stage, and of course all the local festivals like Summerfest. Then 2020 decided it had other plans. What was the low point of 2020 in your opinion? Also, what would you say to those who worry that 2021 won’t be any better?
Time really flies. Who would have thought that we would see an armed mob storm the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the 2020 Presidential Election, killing five people and harming many more? And who could have foreseen a deadly disease that would claim nearly a half million lives in our country in less than a year and forever change the lives of tens of millions of others. When I think about the disappointment of not having a real official DNC in Milwaukee, I have to keep it in perspective.
As hard as 2020 was for us all, I am grateful for all the essential workers out there, from our doctors and public health officials to grocery store clerks, who were on the frontlines at great personal risk. I appreciate the fact they got up every morning and every day and went to work. In 2020, we applauded the workers who we now know are so essential to our everyday lives. We finally recognized the sacrifices that these individuals, some of whom are invisible to us most of the time, had to make and continue to make to keep our communities humming. I would like to see us keep applauding our essential workers in 2021 with policies that support them and keep folks safe.
The truth is there is still much to look forward to in Milwaukee. We are a city on the rise. Four years ago, we had a governor and president working to tear down our city. Now, I am working with a president on initiatives that will help our city grow. President Biden is talking about racial inequity and bridging our country’s deep divisions, which is refreshing and in contrast to the former president, who said there are “very fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville.
No one can promise you things will get easier from here. In fact, things may get harder. But if you woke up today, that is a great start. Count your blessings and go!
What are you hearing from the people who live in your district in terms of their biggest concerns, and how has this shaped your priorities for 2021?
There is no shortage of issues, let me tell you that. Milwaukee has the shameful status of being one of the worst places for Black people.
That’s why I have made empowering poor people my North Star as an elected official, including in Congress. And in 2021, that remains where I keep my compass pointed. I aim to make Milwaukee a beacon for all people and a better place for its residents.
People forget that the full title of the “March on Washington” was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” And, prior to his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized a “second phase” and rally known as the “Poor Peoples March on Washington.” Dr. King was very clear that Black Americans could not achieve full freedom until they also achieved economic justice.
Our communities are reeling with COVID-19. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed and more and more people are understanding the struggles that many in poverty have long faced: the fight to pay rent and utilities; inadequate access to child care and how that affects your ability to work; and the persistent stress of trying to simply stay afloat.
COVID-19 shined a spotlight on racial and income inequality. It reiterates that while some people were bragging about how well our economy was doing and a low national unemployment rate before COVID, the reality was very different for many Americans, with people stretched thin and forced to work multiple jobs just to get by. Most Americans don’t have stocks so the performance of the stock market, which our former President liked to point to, had no positive, direct impact on them. And communities of color, who were already economically vulnerable, are lagging further behind during this pandemic.
The inequities in access to health care are now magnified and I am pleased by the steps the Biden Administration has taken to reverse the prior administration’s sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, which only undermined access to affordable healthcare for many Americans.
Meanwhile, education, which is the gatekeeper for many good-paying jobs, is only getting more costly and inaccessible. We must continue working towards opening this gate of opportunity, including homeownership, to more people.
Unfortunately, this economic disparity disproportionately burdens Black Americans. That’s why something so critical as expanding access to homeownership will require a multi-pronged approach. It’s interconnected to so many other challenges Black Americans face. To truly tackle this issue, we must expand access to educational and economic opportunities that will ensure Black Americans have the financial resources to purchase homes.
Wisconsin, like much of the Midwest, has a reputation for friendly people. This stands in sharp contrast to the horrifying violence that occurred in Kenosha and elsewhere. How do we achieve de-escalation and move from a place where trust has broken down towards people coming together to find common ground?
Wisconsin also has a history of progressive politics: think of our bold role in the labor movement, think of Earth Day, and our efforts to protect the environment, and people taking to the streets to push for social change. That progress did not come easy. I think it is well rooted in our tradition for Wisconsinites, as friendly and nice as we are, to take to the streets when they see an injustice being done. I remember the housing marches in Milwaukee in the 1960s and the fight by one of my She-roes, Vel Phillips, for fair housing in our city. Our state has a history of brutal labor protests. As nice as we are, we also know about speaking truth to power, whether power wants to listen or not.
Like a lot of young African Americans of my generation, I was inspired by the civil rights era and knew that I had to do my part. I am a little younger than the first wave of heroes who were winning basic accommodation rights, so I found my stewardship in taking up the mantle of economic empowerment.
The police shootings of Black people are horrific violence that no other community would countenance. Yet, it’s become almost routine in our country and the people of Kenosha and elsewhere in our country have made it clear, enough is enough.
The police shooting in Kenosha was preventable. That’s a good place to start in terms of de-escalation.
To find common ground, you have to start by listening, not dismissing, demeaning or diminishing those who have a viewpoint you may not agree with. This means not calling every protester a rioter, so you don’t have to deal with acknowledging the issues that the many peaceful protestors were raising attention to. Policing in our communities is broken; the trust between police and the communities has long been broken. How do we fix it? Stop ignoring it. It hasn’t worked. And it won’t.
Communities need to see real earnest efforts by political leaders to respond to their cries. Not the Wisconsin Legislature gaveling out (in seconds) special sessions called by the Governor to consider police reform legislation.
We need real, meaningful and sustained conversations, which means letting communities know that their input is valued, not just checking a box. The next, necessary step is acting on those conversations so that people know that they matter. Their lives matter! Period.
Is the House of Representatives reflective of the nature of the political discourse we see on cable news, or is there a level of collegiality and working across the aisle that the media isn’t covering?
During my time in Congress, I have always worked to try and build friendships and relationships across the aisle, even with folks I do not agree with on policy. As co-chair of the Women’s Caucus in the House a few years ago, I worked with Cynthia Lummis (then Representative, now Senator) to learn about issues of mutual interests. Same with my work as co-chair of the Congressional TRIO Caucus, another bipartisan caucus, where I am pleased to work with my Republican colleagues to talk about issues we care about.
I have had good relationships with Republicans and hope to continue to do so. I have had the opportunity to travel with and really get to know these folks. Within the Wisconsin delegation, I believe I’ve had good personal and working relationships with Paul Ryan and Jim Sensenbrenner, to name a few. Paul and I looked at poverty from very different lenses. But did you know, when I served with him on the Budget Committee, we co-sponsored a bipartisan amendment to that bill for several years to ensure state and federal TANF offices did not deduct administrative expenses from a family’s child support payments?
Reaching out and talking with your Republican colleagues happens a lot more than you hear in the press. Most time, it may not result in legislative victories, that’s true.
You have to find common ground in this business. We are all people and that’s the most common ground I start with. I start by asking questions, like how did you end up here? What is your story? We all have had disappointments. We all share common struggle, no matter the political party.
The thing is, just like the last Congress, most of the bills that get signed into law in this Congress will mostly likely pass by voice vote in one or both chambers. That’s a reflection of the ability to work in a bipartisan and bicameral matter on a lot of issues.
When we have disagreements (and they are real and deep disagreements, don’t get me wrong), it makes for good news.
Representative Marcia Fudge is slated to be the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Have you had the opportunity to work closely with her during her time in Congress, and what do you see as the top priorities you’d like her to address?
Marcia is a good friend and I am so pleased about her nomination. She is a super smart and very capable woman who I know is going to do great things at HUD. I can’t wait to invite her to visit Milwaukee to look at some of the things we are doing and discuss the work that remains ahead.
I look forward to having someone at the head of HUD who understands the problems that average Americans are having, and not just housing, but hunger, poverty and education. Marcia has been a champion on those issues, as well as someone I have seen up close who understands these issues, especially having been a mayor. Some of the top priorities I see are:
- Addressing the eviction wave that we all see coming
- Increasing homeownership among communities of color
- Reinstating Fair Housing rules and working to reverse discrimination in housing.
- Fighting to help the homeless and help them get housed
Finally, at some point we’ll be past the pandemic. What are you looking forward to the most once we’re able to talk about COVID-19 in the past tense?
I love to hug. Zoom is great, but I look forward to giving my friends, neighbors and constituents a big hug.
I can’t wait to connect with my Milwaukeeans in a real way. We have been separated from family, separated from friends, and separated from our communities.
I always enjoy attending Community Brainstorming Conferences, festivals and forums where I can really get a pulse on the concerns of Milwaukee residents and forge bonds in the community. They say you don’t miss something until its gone. I look forward to being able to do these events again.
Then there are other events you don’t think you’ll miss until you don’t have them, like being able to attend funerals and grieve with friends, family and constituents who have lost loved ones in the midst of this pandemic. Participating in a parade, an actual one, not just a drive by.
And lastly, continuing to make sure that even after COVID-19 has passed, that the issues and inequities it has shone a bright spotlight on, such as disparities in health care and income equality, must remain at the forefront because they will stay with us unless we forcefully act to fix them.
The opinions and insights expressed in this Q&A are solely those of its interviewee, Gwen Moore, and do not necessarily represent the views of either Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation or any of its parent, affiliates, or subsidiaries (collectively, “MGIC”). Neither MGIC nor any of its officers, directors, employees or agents makes any representations or warranties of any kind regarding the soundness, reliability, accuracy or completeness of any opinion, insight, recommendation, data, or other information contained in this blog, or its suitability for any intended purpose.