Fields, Cleo 1962–
Cleo Fields 1962–
“When people tell me I can’t do something,” Cleo Fields told Los Angeles Times writer Jesse Katz, “it’s almost like saying ‘Sic ‘em’ to a dog.” After becoming the youngest state legislator ever to be elected in Louisiana, Fields went on to become the youngest representative in the 103rd Congress. But it was his defeat in Louisiana’s 1995 gubernatorial race that gained him the greatest national attention and positioned him as a vital figure in state politics. Though his avowedly liberal politics have set him against the tide in an increasingly conservative political era, Fields has stuck to his principles and gained respect.
Fields was born in Port Allen, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, the seventh of ten children. His dock-worker father died when he was four, leaving his mother, Alice, to tend for the children herself. Their extreme poverty led to an eviction, after which they moved to South Baton Rouge. Alice took in laundry and worked as a maid to make ends meet. Fields reminisced in the Internet magazine Salon on having holes in the bottoms of his shoes and not being able to attend 25-cent school field trips. In the Louisiana Political Review, he noted that during childhood he considered his life a normal one. “I didn’t know what poor was. I thought mommas were supposed to put three patches in a pair of pants. In junior high school, it really hit me in the face. That’s when I realized what my mother was going through.”
He worked in a store and a McDonald’s restaurant to help out the family. Yet the flames of ambition burned in Fields at an early age. During the seventh grade, he told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, his teacher asked class members to stand up and state their aspirations. “My turn came around,” he recalled. “I had on roach stompers and baggy pants. I said, ‘My name is Cleo Fields and I want to be president when I grow up.’ Everybody laughed, including the teacher. I’ll never forget that day.” During high school, Fields worked for the Mayor’s Office of Youth Opportunity, which helped pay for his college tuition.
Fields went on to attend Southern University, gaining both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree. He was still in law school when he began his campaign for state
At a Glance…
Born November 22, 1962, Port Allen, LA, son of Isidore (a dock-worker), and Alice (a maid and homemaker); married Debra Horton; one child. Education: Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA, B,A., 1984, j.D.,1987.
Louisiana state senator, 1987-92; elected to U.S. Congress, 1992 and 1994; candidate for Louisiana governor, 1995; declined to run for reelection to Congress, 1996; volunteer senior advisor to the Clinton-Gore presidential campaign, 1996; founder and executive director, Young Adults for Positive Action; Junior Deacon, ML Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Addresses: Office—700 N. 10th St., Suite 210, Baton Rouge, LA 70802.
senator, doing most of the organizational work himself, even writing his own jingles for radio commercials. Fields began by building a base with college students and worked tirelessly against a candidate that many on the political scene considered unbeatable, long-time senator Richard Tumley. To the surprise of some experts, he unseated Turnley, who in the Commercial-Appeal referred to Fields as “a very ambitious young man and an astute campaigner.” It was a close race, however, and even as the Fields camp received news of victory, local television stations were announcing Turnley’s reelection. When Fields went to campaign headquarters to make his acceptance speech, he recollected in the Louisiana Political Review,“People were telling my mother, ‘You got to get Cleo out of here. He’s lost his mind.’” At the age of 24—the same year he received his law degree—Fields joined the state legislature, becoming the youngest person ever to hold such office. “When I was elected to the state senate, I was a little kid,” he admitted in Salon. “I put on the best suit I had and my little polyester tie and I went to the state senate and took my seat. And this senator walked up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, son. Can you get me a cup of coffee?’ I said, ‘I’m not a page. I’m a lawyer. But when you see a page, you tell him to get two cups of coffee.’”
According to Congressional Quarterly, Fields “was a leader against illicit drug use and was regarded favorably by environmentalists, but not so much so that he was perceived as an enemy of the state’s powerful natural gas industry.” The publication added that the young legislator primarily “showed a knack for positioning himself to win elections. He also demonstrated the drive and energy to make good on his opportunities.” Fields was particularly effective at pushing for minority opportunity in the state, helping to create a large number of political jobs for blacks. One source told the Louisiana Political Review,“Cleo has placed more people up here than anyone.” Much of his tenure in the state Senate was taken up with designing a congressional district that would give voice to the black population of his region. To this end, he chaired the redistricting committee, and helped shape the new district that would send him to the nation’s capital.
Fields served in the state Senate for six years. At last he decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. Though he was defeated in his first attempt in 1990, he won two years later. At 30, he was once again the youngest legislator. He advanced his agenda in Congress on the House Small Business Committee, the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee, the Housing and Community Opportunity Committee, and several others.
Fields used his voting power in the service of a more or less liberal agenda. He could boast of a 0-percentage rating (out of a possible 100 percent) by such conservative organizations as the Christian Coalition and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Meanwhile, self-styled progressive interest groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League, PeacePAC, and the American Public Health Association, as well as a range of labor-affiliated organizations, gave him a perfect rating. His efforts as a legislator often involved channeling funds into education and protecting consumers from the excesses of insurers, banks, and other such institutions. Congressional Quarterly noted that Fields “has tried to use his seats on the Banking Committee and the Small Business Committee to leverage capital for small businesses willing to relocate in his district, where poverty rates are high.” Though he made many political enemies with his voting record, his personal standing in Congress remained high. When his first child was born in 1995, he won cheers from his colleagues on the floor.
The alleged racial gerrymandering of Fields’ district was the subject of constant legal wrangling from late-1993 until well into his second term in Congress. The shape of the district resembled the letter “z,” and brought together a larger black populace—and consequently more black votes—than a competing version. After various challenges, referrals to higher courts, and redraws, Fields returned to Congress with a decisive majority. Unfortunately for him, his district woes were far from over.
In 1995 he became a candidate for governor in Louisiana. Fields began to gain in the crowded Democratic primary when another black candidate withdrew and gave Fields his support. Many in his party expressed anger at his candidacy, since they felt a black challenger could not seriously win the office. “I know I’m going against the odds, but I am an odds-buster,” he noted in the Commercial-Appeal. “I feel uncomfortable when it’s even. I like to be the underdog. I’ve been the underdog all my life.” He surprised many when he beat several prominent Democrats in the primary and made it to a run-off with Republican favorite Mike Foster. And though race had been a preeminent factor in his redisricting fight, Fields vowed not to emphasize color in the election, proclaiming, “I’m not running to be the African American governor, but to be the best governor,” in a speech excerpted in the Chicago Tribune. “Don’t vote for me because I’m black, … don’t vote against me because I’m black.” His remarks in the Los Angeles Times continued this theme: “When a baby cries, it’s not a white baby or a black baby—it’s a hungry baby,” he asserted. “When people cry for job opportunities, they’re not black or white—they’re unemployed.” He was also outspoken in his support for gun control, which Foster roundly opposed. “Every time I hear a gunshot,” he declared in a speech reported by the Chicago Tribune,“I think about my child.” Some analysts actually wagered that Fields chances in the election might be helped by the likelihood that many of Foster’s supporters would go duck hunting on election day.
Fields believed his record as a Congressional representative would position him well in the election. “Voters have had an opportunity to see me and see how I operate as an elected official,” he explained during a news conference covered by the Chicago Tribune. “So I think slowly we’re breaking down those race barriers.” Foster, meanwhile, knew better than to underestimate his opponent. “Anyone who thinks Cleo Fields is not tough is not living in this world,” he noted in the Tribune. “Cleo’s one of the toughest campaigners I’ve ever seen.” Yet Fields’ resilience was not enough to earn him an enthusiastic endorsement from fellow Democrats, and his alleged inability to be elected because of his color was a constant theme during the campaign. In the Commercial-Appeal, Fields replied to such assertions by saying that he expected “from the Democratic party what I have given the Democratic Party—loyalty and support.” Meanwhile, a Baton Rouge political analyst, who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, felt Fields had become “the dominant black politician in the state, which also makes him probably the most important Democrat in the state.”
This time, however, Fields had underestimated the challenge he faced. Foster’s conservative approach resonated with Louisiana voters, who in the previous election had given former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke nearly 40 percent of the popular vote. He was defeated soundly in the run-off, and experienced continued discord with fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu, who criticized his bid because she felt a black candidate could not win. Fields retaliated by labeling her campaign racist and refusing to endorse her in the future. More trouble came when it was revealed that Fields had sent out newsletters to his district—at a cost of about $46,000, paid for by taxpayers—that were clearly meant to boost his gubernatorial bid. “Of course, a newsletter like that doesn’t have to say ‘reelect me’ to be effective around election time,” explained National Taxpayers Union vice-president Pete Sepp in Insigh ton the News. “It can serve as a great, well-produced reminder to voters that their incumbent congressman is taking care of business.” Fields was far from alone in engaging in such tactics, of course; but the exposure in a time when “government waste” was a handy political phrase wielded by conservatives did not help.
Next came the most crushing political blow: Fields’ congressional district was re-drawn by a federal court, which concluded that the z-shaped black-majority district that had placed him in office was unconstitutional, since it was based primarily on race. Fields expressed little surprise and announced his intention to appeal, but it seemed clear that his fortunes as a candidate had soured. He eventually announced he would not be a candidate for office in 1996 and planned to take a volunteer senior advisory position in the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. But as an old man of 34, he could already look back on a career full of milestones. It seemed unlikely that the ambition and energy of Cleo Fields would allow him to sit still for long.
Best of New Orleans, May 30, 1996.
Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1995; November 18, 1995.
Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), November 12, 1995, p. B5.
Congressional Quarterly, October 1995.
Insight on the News, December 18,1995, vol. 11, no. 48, p. 36.
Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1995, p. Al.
Louisiana Political Review, January 1993, pp. 32-37.
Tulane Hullabaloo, October 27,1995; November 17, 1995.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the office of Congressman Fields, Baton Rouge, LA, and from the Internet via the following World Wide Web sites: United States Black On-Line, “Cleo Fields,” http://www.usbol.com/ctjournal/Bios/cfields.html(6/3/96); PoliticsNow, “Campaign ‘96: Louisiana House Races,” http://www.politicsnow.come/campaign/house/races/la/ (8/1/96); C-Span Online, “Rep. Cleo Fields (D-LA),” http://www.c-span.org/congress/members/la04bio.htm (6/3/96); Salon, December 30, 1995, http://eweb07.online.apple.com (6/3/96).
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