In her own words Julia Carson does her own driving. The 7th District’s member of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., arrives at NUVO behind the wheel of her beloved 1993 black Buick Roadmaster. It’s a brilliant autumn afternoon just weeks before the election. Sure enough, Rep. Carson is dressed in red, the very same color as the signs proclaiming her name that are turning up in yards all across town. Although she was born in Louisville in 1938, Julia May Carson has lived most of her life in Indianapolis. She graduated from Crispus Attucks High School and attended Martin University and Indiana University-Purdue University in Ft. Wayne. She was Congressman Andy Jacobs’ staff assistant from 1965-1972 before getting involved in electoral politics herself, running successfully for seats in both the Indiana House and Senate and then as Center Township trustee from 1990-1996. She followed in Jacobs’ footsteps in 1997 by being elected as a Democrat to the 105th Congress — the first woman and the first African-American Indianapolis has sent to Washington.
Prior to her last election, two years ago, Carson made waves in Washington by refusing to vote in favor of handing congressional authority to make war over to President Bush. In so doing, she flew in the face not just of Republicans, but of a majority of Democrats, many of whom have since come to regret they didn’t vote as she did.
During her tenure in Washington, Carson has worked on issues aimed at improving the lives of everyday people, including children’s health care, the regulation of the debt consolidation industry, homelessness and low income housing programs, as well as the development of high-speed rail corridors between cities.
But while Julia Carson may be politically astute, it doesn’t take long to realize that, as politicians go, she is one-of-a-kind. To be in conversation with her is to be engaged with a human being who combines the lived-in depth of the greatest blues artists with a preacher’s cadences and conscience.
As Carson and I talked, the sun moved westward across the Indianapolis skyline. Occasionally, she would pause, as much, I think, to enjoy the way the light played through the leaves on the trees outside as to collect her thoughts.
My mother was 15 when I was conceived, turned 16 in April and I was born in July. She was a single mother for a long time. Her mother had died when my mother was just 4. I was named after my grandmother, who I never had the pleasure of meeting. She died young.
Somehow my mother never got past the second grade. People like that, during that time, became domestic workers.
And it bothered me, even before I was old enough to understand the political spectrum, the treatment of my mother. The fact that she had to stay on place, couldn’t come home. She had to care for the family and their children. I resented that because of the way I was raised the children were calling my mother, who was older than them, by her first name. This, to me, depicted lack of respect because we had been taught to respect adults. And there was the fact that her meals were separate. The fact that she had a key to the back door and not the front door. I just didn’t think that was quite right.
My mother was one of these people who was a conformist. She didn’t make any waves. She didn’t want anybody to resist or challenge the system — that was the way she came up.
When I got in public office, she used to caution me about “running your mouth, Julia.” But I was a rebel. And I didn’t feel the system was right by her.
The search for domestic work forced Carson and her mother to move frequently. They lived in almost every part of town.
My mother and I lived for a while in a garage over on Rural. And it’s interesting, when you know nothing else — it’s fine. I painted the walls and decorated it and it was great.
I went to public schools and was raised by teachers and neighbors, which turned out to be all right because you knew you didn’t have to worry about your kids because somebody was looking out.
Coming up as a kid — I went to School 63, School 37, School 17, School 86 — when I started in school, I wasn’t old enough to go to school. But I was big for my age and it was ironic, teachers didn’t realize that I wasn’t old enough to be in their classroom. All my friends went to school and left me alone so I went to school. I sat in the classrooms and when I was old enough to enroll they couldn’t believe what I already knew. I was way ahead of my class. It was fun, I enjoyed it. I’ve always liked learning.
Carson was also deriving life lessons from childhood friends.
I learned about the mental health system early. I had one friend — I was the only one in the whole school who knew her mother was in a mental health institution. It was embarrassing — you didn’t want people to know that you had a family member that had mental problems.
During that generation, people called them crazy. “Their mama’s crazy, they had to put her away!” I understood that, and understood the pain she went through. I used to go to Central State Hospital with her on Sunday to visit her mother.
I lived next door to a girl who was deaf. Not “dumb” as society called her. She went to the Deaf School. We lived in a double — she lived on the other side. We played together all the time. It was fine in the daytime, but when we got sleepy and had to turn out the light and she wanted to talk to me I had to turn on the light to see what she was talking about. I learned sign language that way. I’ve been doing sign language since I was a kid because I learned it from my neighbor.
Carson’s experiences have given her a deep appreciation for community.
I feel comfortable in community. Maybe it’s because I’m the only child. But I like to go out and find these relationships. I guess that enhances my comfort level. That people share my ideas and my goals and believe that we are collectively responsible for our young people. That it’s not just the mother and father. They’re not there all the time. It’s not just the schools. They’re not in school all the time. We have to fill the gap where one exists.
When we talk about early childhood development, you can’t just take a child and put it in kindergarten and make it all happen. Kindergarten is temporary. They’re going to go home. So what happens? Is that going to erase all of the good stuff that was instilled in the daytime? Or do we undergird the parents as well, so that goodness can continue?
I don’t think we’ve got it quite right. And I keep thinking about that. How do we get it right? There’s got to be a way.
Today, Carson is disturbed when she sees young people imitating behaviors she believes are promoted through mass media.
I see a lot of things that girls are doing on TV — scantily clad — I would not have wanted to do that when I was coming up and I guess that’s because of my environment. I would not have wanted to be dressed like that. I would not have allowed my children to be dressed like that. I think a lot of that comes from within — it comes from within the home and it comes from within the person.
You got to first start with self. You define your lines of respect for yourself and don’t let nobody cross them. That’s period. If you don’t get him, he wasn’t worth having anyway. You got a better one coming along. And I’ve talked like that all my life.
I think young people are looking for something to belong to. By any means necessary. If that means that I get out and shake my hips and some boy’s attracted to me, then my mission’s accomplished.
I don’t think so. What kind of boy are you attracting?
I think a lot of times, now, in this society, we’re looking for the wrong thing. We’re seeking happiness, we’re seeking comfort and we’re seeking something to look forward to. But the question within yourself is, “What is it I’m looking forward to? What is it I want for me?”
People have to set limits for themselves. They have to require certain standards. And they cannot compromise those standards.
I think with kids we’re doing it wrong. No. 1, I think we’re not doing our job in terms of instilling the right kind of motivation. We have a tendency to brand kids from the time they’re born. If they’re born into a single-parent household there’s no expectation for the child. They’re labeled illegitimate. They’re labeled bastards. And they’re labeled incorrigible. But everybody born has got a mind that can be used positively.
Carson recognizes, though, how difficult getting people to accept new ideas, or a more urgent sense of purpose, can be. She had recently been to services for the police officer, James Davis, who was killed while on duty at Butler University. She was also still affected by the shooting death of Indianapolis Police Department officer Jake Laird.
I think we live in isolation. I think something devastating has to happen for us to feel it. Bombing the World Trade Center: We were pained by that.
I think the media does a lot in arousing the attention and the emotions. You know, kids are killed here every week. Guns, guns, guns are the order of the day. We see it and dismiss it.
When a police officer’s killed, though, we get it. We’re sickened by it.
Both times police officers in Indianapolis have been killed by people who had mental illness. The last fellow’s [Khadir al-Khattab, the alleged killer of officer Davis] father said he wanted to get him help and I know he tried. He was not only pained by his own son’s death and his need for mental health care, he was pained by the pain his son inflicted on other people.
The kid that killed officer Laird killed his own mother. How could anybody kill their own mother? But when you’re mentally ill, you’re not rational. Which also speaks to the need for more mental health care. But I don’t know if people “get it” yet.
Carson voted to deny President Bush the authority to unilaterally make war on Iraq in spite of the administration’s stated certainty that Iraq was a threat that had conspired to attack the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Carson stood by the constitutional principle that it was Congress’ responsibility to declare war.
It was controversial and it was potentially politically devastating to the point that I’d get knocked out because there were a lot of people who favored me as a member of Congress who did not favor that vote. So it was twisted to have people believe that I supported terrorists — wild and wanton stuff.
My grandchild had a sign pasted on one of my signs in his yard that said, “Terrorists.” People were very emotional about that. I was willing to face the consequences. Because I think if you don’t do what you believe is the right thing to do then what’s your purpose? Why do you even bother?
To me, it was about do we really want to convey our authority to one person to declare war? When the Constitution says we have to do that? Do we really want to circumvent that?
Beyond that, I really remember distinctly in the State of the Union there was a claim about weapons of mass destruction, about uranium and Niger — which all proved to be false. My position was then and is now: If these are legitimate claims and you have duly qualified weapons inspectors, let them exhaust their duties. Colin Powell had that position at first and he had to flip-flop because they told him to. Why do we have inspectors if we’re not going to let them do their work?
I was right then, I believe. I haven’t been proven to be wrong. And I believe a lot of people who disagreed with me now come over and say, “You were right.” And I say, “Good. I’m glad I got re-elected. I’m glad you found it out before I was defeated.”
Where do we go from here?
Oh, man, we’re in this war for a long haul. We do not have an exit plan. The only thing I see is more and more money and more people going that-away.
I’m like Dick Lugar. We need an exit plan. We don’t have one. We’re there now. Do you pull everybody out and leave all those families who lost a thousand soldiers over there to say, “Wait a minute, what happened?”
I think we need an exit plan. We don’t have one. And I think it has to come from people of different political persuasions. People who favored or disfavored the war. I think we have sense enough to sit down and create a plan.
And a deadline for that.
Given the war and the array of other challenges facing this country, Carson believes the stakes in this election are particularly high.
Issues dealing with health care, prescription drugs, social security, jobs, dismantling overtime, job protection. The big boys get older and the little boys get lost.
We bailed out an airline industry. They came begging, claiming they were on the brink of bankruptcy because of 9/11. But the airline industry was going under before 9/11. And so you give them the first big chunk, no holds barred, no questions asked. No criteria, no accountability. They did that on Friday night, on Monday night 100,000 people in the airline industry lost their jobs.
Halliburton’s having a no-bid contract in a war where Cheney used to be and still is, I think, guiding or misguiding Halliburton.
I think that your children and their children and children for future generations are going to have to exhaust this humongous debt that we recklessly wandered into. The kids are going to have to pay for that.
I think that if we want to be not just the country of a strong defense, but of strong compassion for people, people who contribute to the building of a great nation, people who have done their part in making America what it is, you’re going to have to change the national administration — there’s no question.
Do we really favor sending all our jobs overseas and leaving American citizens unemployed? Do we really favor the disparate responsibility in terms of the tax system in America, rather than letting everybody pay their fair share? Do we really favor corporations setting up headquarters over in Bermuda to avoid their tax obligations in this country? These things are not hard to understand. You can understand it if you pay attention. I think I would encourage people to make up their own mind, don’t be persuaded by some rhetoric.
You know, it’s like when Max Cleland was defeated. Here’s a man who clearly looks like he was injured in the war. A triple amputee. And the fact that they heaped all that hate on him and defeated him — I don’t blame that on the Republican Party. I blame that on the people. If you’re going to let some TV ad convince you to vote against Max Clelland, who was a victim of the war in Vietnam, that’s your fault. That’s not the television’s fault or the Republicans, either. Where was your common sense?
On the greatest misconception people have about how Washington works.
I know this is a cliché, but I think people believe that what they see is what they get. A lot of the decisions are made in the dark — and not on C-SPAN. Or they’re made at midnight, when most of America is sleeping. There is no responsibility or accountability in the United States Congress. I think the American people have the right and the responsibility to shake Congress up. There’s too much self-centeredness in Congress.
For example, the bill that was going to remove restrictions on bringing guns into Washington, D.C., does not apply to the United States Congress. You’re not going to be able to walk in there with a gun, but you can walk on the street all the time with a gun.
What you will hear is that we are lifting these restrictions, we are giving residents “more freedom.” And people will say we’re preserving our Second Amendment rights to bear arms. It’s a cruel hoax they’re playing on the American people.
With regard to the proposal to amend the Constitution to forbid same sex marriage.
I frankly believe it’s a political maneuver. It’s a few weeks before the election so let’s do what we believe the TV evangelicals are going to want us to do. So we can solidify the conservative base.
Actually, 41 states have already taken legislative positions on same sex marriage. They’ve illegalized it in 41 states. If you’re going to deal with marriage you ought to do it at the state level. You shouldn’t do it with the Constitution.
Nothing in the Constitution deals with divorce. They started off claiming they were “sanctifying” marriage. That was the code word for saying they were “protecting” marriage — that was another code word. If you want to protect marriage, or sanctify it, then do the whole spectrum. But we don’t have any business doing any of it.
Between her stint working for Andy Jacobs Jr. between 1965-1972 and her four terms in Congress, Carson has spent a considerable amount of time in Washington, but she prefers her life in Indianapolis.
I move around OK in Washington but because I’m such a home girl, I’m such a country-type girl, I love being in Indianapolis. Every time we recess for two or three days I’m on a plane getting back to Indianapolis. And I just move around a lot out here.
Yesterday I went to two churches. I went to the memorial for officer Davis. I went to my pastor’s anniversary. I spoke to a chapter of the Eastern Star and last night I did the quilt thing on Talbott Street. If I’d been in Washington I wouldn’t have done all that. But I have a connection here that comforts me. People are not strangers to me here and they accept me for how I am.
She fondly recalls when she could walk to a local grocery at 21st and Central.
I like it when neighbors can sit on their front porches and wave at each other. I miss the time that ladies pitched in and planted gardens. Tomatoes, squash, greens, corn. The lady across the street would say, “Julia, we got some fresh fried corn over here.” I loved that. In my community I see more and more people socializing outside. I like that. If we can reach the point where people can move about without any fear for their safety — I’m hoping I live long enough to see that kind of neighborhood restored.
The congresswoman believes her most important contribution to our public life is as role model.
I think you lead by example. You don’t necessarily need to pass a law in Congress that says people ought to be able to walk to the grocery store in safety. Congress can’t do that. But Julia Carson, as a member of Congress, can lead by example. We’re always in a hurry; we need to slow down. Get to know our communities better, get to know the world better. I think that would solve a lot of our issues in America. We need to get to know each other.
Carson’s public record Arguably, Carson’s most significant achievement as an elected official came after she was elected as Center Township trustee in 1990. That poor relief office was $20 million in debt. Carson employed a workfare program and anti-fraud procedures to erase the debt while providing services to poor people in Indianapolis. She was named The Indianapolis Star’s Woman of the Year — an honor she has received twice. In Congress, Carson is a member of the Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 1999: sponsored a successful bill to authorize a Congressional Gold Medal for Rosa Parks 2000: with Richard Lugar, contributed language enhancing identification of children eligible for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program In 108th Congress: Carson is sponsor of National Defense Rail Act, the largest Amtrak reauthorization bill. She is sponsor of the Veteran’s VOTE Act, a bill to ensure veterans who have completed prison sentences have the right to vote. She has sponsored legislation to regulate the debt consolidation industry. She is sponsor of the Bringing America Home Act aimed at ending homelessness. For more information visit www.juliacarson.house.gov.