Pastor-Turned-Congressman is Taking Conservative Ideas to New Places
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., is building bridges between conservatives and communities of color. The congressman spoke out against the chant “send them back,” directed at critics of President Donald Trump such as Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Walker, also a Baptist pastor, is challenging his colleagues, and all Americans, to honor and respect those who disagree.
Listen to the full episode of The Daily Signal Podcast or read a lightly edited transcript below.
Virginia Allen: Congressman Walker, you have just returned to Washington from your district in North Carolina. What’s on the minds of the citizens back in North Carolina?
Mark Walker: Well, there’s a lot on their minds, and as you get more and more closer, I should say, to the presidential elections, a lot of people want to talk about that.
Of course, there are some people from the business community that are very concerned whether [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi will allow a vote on the USMCA [U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement] trade act.
That’s going to be very important. It impacts North Carolina, impacts the whole country and tens of thousands of jobs, so one of the things they talked about was that. And always health care and some of the other things, as far as what Republicans are doing, even in the minority, to make sure.
I think Vice President Mike Pence said it really well: “In the majority, you legislate. In the minority, you communicate, and sometimes you try to figure out a way to do both.”
Bluey: And you’re certainly in a position, and in the House, where that is a priority, communication. I know that in your previous role [as chairman] with the Republican Study Committee, it was as well. So tell us about what you expect to happen this fall.
What are the priorities that Republicans have? In some cases, you’ve been able to outmaneuver Democrats, it seems … using a motion to recommit and other rules to make sure your issues do stand at the forefront.
Walker: Yeah, I appreciate that you’re paying that close attention to the process, because it is important.
Is there any way that we can do that? One of the things that we did try to win, something that’s very important to the American people, that the majority of the American people support, is allowing a baby to survive if he or she goes [through] a botched abortion.
I was one of the people that spoke firmly and consistently, as most people I think with any kind of heart would do so. Yet, once again, the Democrats have blocked any kind of floor vote. The reason, the strategy behind that is, that Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team, they know that the majority of the American people are horrified. The fact that we are in a First World country [and] claim any kind of moral high ground.
Take the abortion argument out of it. We’re just talking about a born-alive amendment. That’s one of the things that we’re going to continue to talk about.
Trade is another [priority], and why the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Act is an important trade agreement to move forward. Mexico is now our No. 1 trade partner, so those things are important to us.
Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to talk more about those in the fall as well.
Bluey: Well, I’m glad you brought up communication, because it is so critical for conservatives to make sure that they’re on the forefront. … Because it’s so critical that conservatives talk not just to our base about those issues, but also reach out to new audiences, and that’s been a priority of ours at The Heritage Foundation under the leadership of Kay Coles James. And I wanted to ask you about a recent article that was in The Charlotte Observer, talking about your efforts to reach new communities, particularly those of color.
Share with us why it is important for you to take your message [of] conservative values to this audience.
Walker: There is probably nothing that I’m more passionate about in my time in the U.S. Congress, whatever time God allows us to serve in this capacity, than to build some of those bridges.
Maybe [it’s] the background as a pastor for 16 years working in the inner cities of places like Cleveland and New York and Baltimore. I have met so many wonderful people, yet sadly on the behalf of Republicans or conservative ideology as a whole, it has not permeated in to many of these communities.
The Democrats have beat us to it, and they have used arts and entertainment, education, politics, pretty much any kind of medium, to be able to propagate a false message that has created a victimhood to the point that you’ve put limitations [on ourselves].
Now, forgive me for using a Scripture reference, but Psalms 139. I understand that every person that God creates [is] fearfully and wonderfully made with unique abilities and talents and skill sets.
So part of my job, and you just said it, Rob, [is going beyond] just taking the message to the base. What I say is, we can’t survive just simply preaching to the choir.
Sorry for the other church reference, but how do we augment our message? How do we take it to new places and new communities that have never heard about individual liberty and opportunity in fulfilling the very giftedness that you’re created with?
That’s my passion, and we’ve been able to have, I guess, some marginal success. But as long as I get a chance to serve, as I said, we’re going to continue to make that the forefront of our message.
Allen: Congressman, how are you going about encouraging your colleagues on the Hill to reach out to those communities of color and begin to build and strengthen those relationships?
Walker: Well, there’s a lot of good intentions by Republicans and my colleagues and some who are working very hard. But I think the biggest flaw that we’ve had over the last decade or so is the idea that there’s a secret policy that builds the conduit to all of our communities.
Policy, we have to understand, comes second. It is the relationship that comes first, because with healthy relationships, you build trust. And with trust then you have the pathway or the asphalt to be able to drive home some of this wonderful freedom ideology that liberates all of us economically and what have you.
Now, the president gets some wonderful props in some of the numbers that we have seen, but in order to build this long term, we have to — to your question, Virginia — be disciplined enough to go into the communities even when you’re not the keynote speaker.
This past Sunday, I had a chance to speak at a 95% to 97% predominantly African-American church. In fact, this one, many of the parishioners were immigrants from Kenya, Nigeria, and some other African nations, and I was just so humbled to be there.
I called my wife. She was at our home church. I called my wife afterwards, [about] just the way they treated me with such class, and they made me feel worthy of that. But it is months and years of investment, building those relationships. Genuine, not faking it with some kind of “Hey, like us because we can do this for you,” but earning the trust to be able to talk about things that we believe are best for all of our communities.
Bluey: Congressman, our president [at Heritage] Kay Coles James, who I’ve mentioned already, and our [Daily Signal] editor-in-chief, Katrina Trinko, both wrote about how troubling it was to use the chants [of] “send them back” or “go back.” Kay herself has heard that as an African-American woman in her own experience, and shared how hurtful it was to her personally.
You also came out and were critical of the chant that was heard, “Send them back,” directed at people like [Rep.] Ilhan Omar, a colleague of yours in the House. Why did you feel it so important to speak out on this issue?
Walker: Because Republicans must take the lead when it comes to calling some of this out.
There’s nothing more advantageous that the left likes to use than the stereotype that Republicans do not care about communities of color. The second part of that is, there just should be something internally that if we know there are certain phrases or certain things that are tropes or phrases that have hurt our brothers and sisters … that shouldn’t be something we have to think about.
That shouldn’t be about politics. That should be about our moral fiber and the content of our character to immediately call that out, even if it’s some people that identify with certain ideology that we may agree with.
That’s an easy call. It should be. And I felt like it was important for me, being there live at that event, to speak about that.
In fact, the next day, I was having breakfast with the vice president, a handful of the members of leadership, about seven or eight of us. The last thing I said to the vice president [was], “Please communicate to the president that this is something that does not help us.”
I was glad to see that President Trump, not just because of my encouragement, later on that day condemned that [chanting], and we haven’t had to worry about that since.
But that’s what Republicans have to do. Historically, we are the party that has tried to care about and really lift up the lives of all our communities. But we’ve got to be very, very vocal about it, because we’re pushing back against the narrative that we’re not.
Bluey: The Republican Party certainly has such a rich history. It’s something that I think oftentimes doesn’t get discussed enough or taught in schools, or we just seem to forget. But it is the party of Lincoln, after all.
Walker: Absolutely, and we need to continue to build on that.
Allen: You speak openly about how conservative policies, such as criminal justice reform and tax cuts, have really helped low-income communities, including African-American communities. But how should those on the right go about messaging these successes to communities of color?
Walker: Virginia, that’s a great question. The approach is crucial. If your attitude is you coming in from a condescending standpoint or spike the football, no matter how good the policy might be there’s a defensive reaction, as we all would have.
If you’re on the receiving end, and somebody’s like, “I told you so” or “You should do this,” our first human reaction is to resist it a little bit.
I think if we’re disciplined enough to do it, really, from a genuine place of loving the communities that we’re privileged to represent, I think it has a chance to resonate not only quicker, but even augment it to a place where it impacts many more Americans.
Bluey: You know, Congressman, last week on The Daily Signal Podcast, we featured an interview with CJ Pearson. He’s a 17-year-old high school senior who talked about … how his own family, his parents, are registered Democrats. But the values that they taught him and then continued to teach him in his own house, are what he would consider to be traditional American values or conservative values.
So it sounds like sometimes with the policies, there just might be a disconnect. Because really, in many of these families, they might from a value system be with us, and in many cases, across the board, as CJ talked about.
Walker: There’s no question. I have a friend of mine, his name is Odell Cleveland. He is the CEO, executive pastor of the second-largest African-American church in North Carolina. When he came out five years ago when I first decided to run and not only supported us, but publicly endorsed me, he took a lot of heat over it. There’s a narrative there that you don’t do that. But he was willing to really put his neck on the line to be able to say, “I believe in this guy. I trust his heart in this.”
Because of heroes like that, it opens up certain pathways to begin to talk about hard issues. That’s to your point, Rob. That’s what I discovered is, there’s a ton of similarities there when it comes to pro-life issues, when it comes to what we believe in as far as the best way to rear children in traditional homes. There’s so much there, but there’s been such a false narrative.
Listen, we have to own some of that. When I had a chance to be invited to Alabama with [Rep.] John Lewis to be able to return to the civil rights pilgrimage, I think there were 50 of us on Saturday, 48 Democrats and two Republicans. And sometimes I wonder, with my voting record, why I would be invited, because it’s pretty staunch conservative, but I believe it’s about the heart.
Even today, earlier, getting a chance to be invited … by the [Congressional Black Caucus] of all people, even though they know my record is without blemish when it comes to holding up the conservative values that we believe in.
But I believe if you get to the place where you understand that it’s not so much about winning the argument as it is about making a difference, I believe that puts you at a good place to be able to share, really, in a much broader way than maybe even you thought you originally could do.
Bluey: Well, I imagine that when you get together with members of the [Congressional Black Caucus] or other Democratic congressmen, you probably both recognize that there is a problem. Maybe you have different solutions for how you would go about addressing it, but fundamentally you all do want to make a difference.
Walker: Absolutely, and listen, I don’t shy away from the fact that I believe some of these policies from the left have damaged these communities, entrapped people into poverty, and we’ve seen 50, 60 years of it. So there are big differences, but I’d use this quote: “It’s harder to hate up close.”
So if you’re willing to go in and try to build a genuine relationship, but talk about these differences, I’m not under some kind of pie-in-the-sky mentality that once you do that, everything goes away.
But sometimes, as much as I have relationships with those leaders, I would rather go to the communities and say, “Well, here’s the truth about the situation.” Because that’s where the pressure comes up on their leaders to make some changes, as opposed to the other way around.
Bluey: You’ve talked about how you attempt to bring people together, and a couple years ago, you were able to bring some conservative congressmen together with leaders of historically black colleges and universities.
Talk about some of the efforts that you’ve attempted … where you get people together in the same room where they otherwise might not have an opportunity to even have this conversation.
Walker: It’s personal for me. One, I represent the largest historical black college and university in the country in North Carolina, A&T, with 12,000 wonderful students. Aggie pride, as we like to say.
My wife, 25 miles away, went to Winston-Salem State University. She’s got two degrees. And for some of your listeners, you may understand the history of the football rivalry, whether you’re a Ram or Aggie. But once again going and understanding a little bit of where the different cultures have prospered, where they’ve struggled.
I remember being here and really not even having a title at the time. I wasn’t vice chair [of the House Republican Conference] like I am now, or even chair of the Republican Study Committee. But I believed it was important for Republicans to hear from these chancellors. The first year, we were able to bring over 80 chancellors from the, I guess, nearly 100 historical black colleges and universities and said, “Tell us what it is that you see. How can we help?”
I think out of that stemmed a year-round Pell Grant that eventually became law, something that impacted their university. Sometimes, just the little things of being able to work a little bit on behalf of the different universities, or different people in general, is something that I believe goes a long way when it comes back to what I said earlier: building that genuine relationship.
Allen: Congressman, for those who are thinking, “I want to be a part of building those bridges in my community between conservatives and communities of color,” what advice would you give to them?
Walker: Well, I think it starts, I know this isn’t necessarily a religious broadcast, but I think it starts from your faith.
That’s what we’re compelled to do in the Ten Commandments. Love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t say whether Republican or Democrat, or black or white, or whatever. If you truly do, what happens is, people have a chance to see your heart.
We know, and we’ve been blessed to see that conservative, traditional values put people in the best category — from anti-poverty, from an education standpoint, and historically from a best prosperity standpoint.
We know that, but how we share those principles is crucial as far as to the next generation. Listen, as a former pastor for 16 years, I get the divide.
Fifty, 60 years ago, when some of the minority communities couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain or sit at the same lunch counter, like in my hometown of Greensboro, at Woolworth, or that took place, the conservatives and the church, we were slow to react.
Now, none of us were around back then, but who was immediately reacting was the progressive movement, the actors, the entertainers of the world, the people that didn’t believe in the same ideology.
There were some relationships forged that we have to go back and say, “Listen, I appreciate it historically, but where we have been led astray is thinking that more government has been the solution for all these communities, and we know that nothing could be further from the truth.”
The goal is to earn the right and the opportunity to share what we believe.
Bluey: Congressman, to wrap up here, a couple of final questions. You’ve mentioned your role as a pastor prior to coming to Congress. Of course, you’ve ascended into a leadership position. Tell us about the vice chair [of the House Republican Conference], what exactly it is that you do, and how people can learn more about you and the work that you have going on.
Walker: Well, you’ve been very gracious with your time today. Yeah, I get to serve as what they call the No. 4 [Republican] position in the House. It was a little bit of surprise to me that they would vote for a conservative to be able to do that. … But go back to the relational side, it’s your colleagues that vote.
Coming out of [being] the chairman for the Republican Study Committee, which was 150 members, it is great to be able to talk about our values, and about budget, deficits, and fiscal responsibility.
That’s something that’s very important to me, so I guess we combined those two and our colleagues honored us be able to vote us in as vice chair.
A lot of that does have to do with communication and messaging, as you referred to a little bit earlier, Rob. That is something that I am passionate about, and that’s why I feel like it’s so important.
Yes, let’s continue to talk to our base, to be able to lock arms and stand and fight when we need to, and be strong when we need to. But let’s not forget about those who have been robbed of the opportunity to hear about our message as well. That’s what I’m committed to do.
Bluey: That’s great, and I encourage our readers to follow you on Facebook and Twitter and all those social media accounts. We’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes.
Walker: Thank you, Rob. Thank you, Virginia.
Allen: Thank you so much for your time, Congressman.
Walker: My privilege.
Bluey: Thank you.
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