||This biographical article needs additional citations for verification. (November 2008)|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Louisiana's 4th district
January 3, 1993 – January 3, 1997
|Preceded by||Jim McCrery|
|Succeeded by||Jim McCrery|
November 22, 1962 |
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Fields was born in Port Allen, Louisiana. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Southern University in Baton Rouge. Fields was elected as a Democrat to the Louisiana Senate in 1986. In 1980, he founded the fundraising group Young Adults for Positive Action. He ran for Congress in 1990, but was defeated.
Fields represented Louisiana's 4th congressional district in the United States Congress from 1993 through 1997. He was also an unsuccessful candidate for Louisiana gubernatorial election, 1995, losing in a landslide to Mike Foster. He did not run for reelection in 1996. His seat was taken by Republican John Cooksey who defeated the Democratic candidate Francis Thompson by a wide margin.
On October 1, 2007, the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled that Fields could not stand for re-election to his State Senate seat because of term limits. The state legislature had passed a law in 2006 that had defined the date of the swearing in of Fields and of the intended beneficiary, Shreveport Republican Wayne Waddell, in a way that would have allowed Fields to stand for re-election in November 2007 and serve one more term, but the court ruled the law unconstitutional.
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.
Education & First Senate Term
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 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 many on the political scene considered unbeatable, long-time senator Richard Turnley. 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 re-election. 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.'" (Fields was not in fact a lawyer at the time; see Legal career below.)
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.
Service in the United States House of Representatives
Fields served in the state Senate for six years. In 1990, he entered the jungle primary for the 8th District, but was defeated in the first round by incumbent Republican Clyde Holloway.
He ran again in 1992, this time in the newly created 4th District, a 63 percent black majority district stretching in a "Z" shape from Shreveport to Baton Rouge. Along the way, it picked up most of the black neighborhoods in Monroe and Alexandria as well. He finished first in a crowded seven-way primary, coming roughly 1,500 votes short of winning outright. He was forced into a runoff against fellow state senator C.D. Jones of Monroe, which he won with over 73 percent of the vote. 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, 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 gerrymandering of Fields' district was the subject of constant legal wrangling from late 1993 until well into his second term in Congress. The district, running like a long, thin snake down the Mississippi River, was designed to collect a larger black populace — and more black votes — than a competing version. After various challenges, referrals to higher courts, and redraws, Fields was finally able to run in his custom-designed district and trounced a nominal Republican challenger in 1994. His district woes were far from over, however, and the district was ultimately thrown out by the Supreme Court as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
Running for Governor
In 1995 he became a candidate for Louisiana governor. Another black candidate withdrew and endorsed Fields, leaving him the entire black vote. Many in his party were angered by his candidacy, since most felt that a black challenger could not seriously win the office and Mason-Dixon polling released on October 17, 1995 showed Fields to be the loser in every possible head-to-head combination of candidates. "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 narrowly beat the top two white Democratic candidates in the primary and made it to a runoff with Republican Mike Foster. Though race had been a preeminent factor during his Congressional redistricting 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 brief record as a Congressional representative would help him 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' self-confidence was not enough to earn him an enthusiastic endorsement from fellow Democrats, and his alleged lack of cross-over appeal because of his color was a constant issue during the campaign. In the Commercial-Appeal, Fields replied to such assertions after having knocked out all other Democratic candidates by saying that he expected "from the Democratic party what I have given the Democratic Party — loyalty and support." John Maginnis, a Baton Rouge political writer who was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, thought that Fields had become "the dominant black politician in the state, which also makes him probably the most important Democrat in the state."
Fields had underestimated the challenge he faced. Foster's conservative message, designed by media consultant Roy Fletcher, who also had handled Cleo Fields' campaign for Congress, resonated with Louisiana's voters, who in a previous election had given former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke nearly 40 percent of the popular vote. As the polls predicted, Fields was defeated soundly in the runoff. Exit polling showed that 95% of his votes came from the black community. During this race Fields began a feud with fellow Democrat Mary Landrieu who did not endorse him in the second. Like many, she believing his bid had been funded by Republicans and was intended to be a spoiler to let Foster win. Fields retaliated by labeling her campaign racist and refusing to endorse her in her later race for United States Senate. It was revealed that Fields had abused his Congressional franking privileges by sending 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 Insight on 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, it did not help.
Return to Louisiana Senate
In 1997 Fields was again elected to the Louisiana Senate. He served at the same time as his brother Wilson until Wilson Fields won a judgeship, the first time in Louisiana history that two brothers served together in the Senate.
Fields served until he became ineligible to run for reelection because of term limits. A change to the term limits law would have enabled him to run for another term, but the law was invalidated by the Louisiana Supreme Court. He was succeeded in 2008 by Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb.
Cash from Edwin Edwards
Fields achieved considerable notoriety in 1997 when an FBI surveillance videotape showed him accepting a large amount of cash (about $20,000) from former Louisiana Governor Edwin W. Edwards and stuffing it in his pockets. At the time Fields stated that the incident was just an innocent business transaction between friends, and said there was a humorous explanation, which he would make public shortly thereafter. A cloud hung over Fields as an unindicted co-conspirator in Edwards' criminal trial and in the end Fields refused to deliver the promised "humorous" explanation, stating that at the time of the cash transfer, he was not an elected official, and therefore under no obligation to explain publicly.
Fields graduated from Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge in 1987. Although he told Salon magazine that, upon first being elected to the Louisiana Senate, he identified himself as a lawyer to another senator (see above), he was not in fact a lawyer at that time. (Being a lawyer in Louisiana, or anywhere in the United States, is not simply a matter of having a law degree, although that is usually a prerequisite, but of being licensed to practice law, which almost always requires passing a bar examination. On April 9, 1998, he did become licensed to practice law. He has his own law firm in Baton Rouge, and handles a variety of matters.
"Rosa Parks sat...."
Fields is credited with the original version of a quotation that became popular following Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election. At the "State of the Black Union 2008" symposium in New Orleans, Louisiana in February 2008, Fields said, "Rosa Parks sat down so we could stand up. Martin Luther King marched so Jesse Jackson could run. Jesse Jackson ran so Obama could win." Another version has Fields saying, "W. E. B. Du Bois taught so that Rosa Parks could take a seat. Rosa took a seat so we all could take a stand. We all took a stand so that Martin Luther King Jr. could march. Martin marched so Jesse Jackson could run. Jesse ran so Obama could WIN." Fields's statement was shortened by the rapper Jay-Z in "My President Is Black": "Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk/ Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run/ Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly."
Governor of Louisiana, 1995
Threshold > 50%
First Ballot, October 21, 1995
|Mike Foster||Republican||385,267 (26%)||Runoff|
|Cleo Fields||Democratic||280,921 (19%)||Runoff|
|Mary Landrieu||Democratic||271,938 (18%)||Defeated|
|Buddy Roemer||Republican||263,330 (18%)||Defeated|
Second Ballot, November 18, 1995
|Mike Foster||Republican||984,499 (64%)||Elected|
|Cleo Fields||Democratic||565,861 (36%)||Defeated|
- "LA Governor races 1975-2007 – Details". "Range Voting". Retrieved 3 Aug 2011.
-  DuBos, Clancy, "Questions for Cleo", Gambit Weekly newspaper / Best of New Orleans web site, October 24, 2000
-  DuBos, Clancy and Sam Winston, "An Epic Tale", Gambit Weekly newspaper / Best of New Orleans web site, March 21, 2006
-  Louisiana Supreme Court Committee on Bar Admissions, Rule XVII
-  Louisiana State Bar Association member directory entry for Cleo Fields
- "STATE OF THE BLACK UNION 2008 EXAMINES ROLE OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS" (Press release). Tavis Smiley Presents. February 23, 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-25.
- Hershkovits, David (January 23, 2009). "Sourcing the quote: 'Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so Obama could run. Obama ran so we can all fly.'". Paper.
- Jokesta (January 20, 2009). "Jay-Z Talks 'My President Is Black' Remix, Blue Print 3 Delay". DefSounds. Retrieved 2009-01-25.
|United States House of Representatives|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Louisiana's 4th congressional district