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Three months into his new job as president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., addressing African-American issues, Ralph Everett is already on the grind. Everett is on the front line of public policy issues at a critical time for African-Americans, who have soared into several leadership positions in the 110th Congress. Everett met with Osita Iroegbu of Legal Times at The Bombay Club — where, he confesses, he orders a certain dish because the foods on it don’t touch (it’s an old Southern habit, he explains) — to talk about pressing issues at the Joint Center, the political environment for black lawmakers, and why he turned down the big question from Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
LT: The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies was founded 37 years ago to provide training and assistance to newly elected black officials. What role does it play in today’s current political and social environment? Everett: We are involved in the political and social processes in Washington and beyond that significantly impact African-Americans and all people of color. Most of the critical issues for African-Americans at the present are economic ones relating to our attempts to be able to support our family; ensure a good, healthy living; and educate our children. It’s all about economic empowerment.
LT: What is the Joint Center’s response to the Democrats’ takeover of Congress? Everett: You know, it’s a very exciting time. It’s the first time in history where five African-Americans are serving as chairs and having the power to decide which issues will be heard. We work with members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, and other think tanks. We anticipate that the Joint Center will be called upon to testify on issues that affect the minority community. At least 15 African-Americans will be chairing subcommittees. It’s also the first time a black senator, Barack Obama, is seriously considering running for president of the United States.
LT: You are friends with fellow South Carolinian James Clyburn [D], who is now House majority whip. As the new president of the Joint Center, what will your working relationship with Clyburn be like? Everett: James Clyburn holds the No. 3 position of leadership in the House. He will be a key player in the presidential race. All of the presidential candidates are already seeking him out. South Carolina, no matter how “country” folk think we might be, is very important in next year’s presidential elections. It’s the first Southern state with the earliest primary in the presidential race. Just by being in the meetings, he will have a real influence on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.]. So just as he is essential to the leadership of Congress, he is essential to the Joint Center.
LT: You mention Obama’s run for the presidency. It was rumored that you turned down an offer to work on his staff. Is that true? Everett: [laughing] Yes, but that was two years ago, when Sen. Obama was elected as senator. I did have discussions about me becoming his chief of staff. But I had other personal things going on at the time. I had to take care of my parents, who are now deceased, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that as chief of staff.
LT: Have you had any talks with Sen. Obama since then about joining his presidential campaign team? Everett: No. But I have talked with Sen. Obama, as well as other presidential candidates.
LT: Which candidate does the Joint Center support? Everett: We don’t endorse candidates. But we will be inviting the candidates to visit us for talks. We are hopeful that each presidential candidate from both parties meet at the Joint Center. As the premier African-American think tank, we will be able to bring to the table issues that others won’t, like health disparities and improving the lives of African-American males.
LT: You worked for 18 years as partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker and were the first African-American to receive partnership at the firm. What about the Joint Center appealed to you? What are your goals now that you’re on board? Everett: Well, coming here wasn’t about the money. I could think of no better time to be working at the Joint Center than now. I worked with the Joint Center as a Capitol Hill staffer about 30 years ago. What better thing can I do than be in the middle of such historic moments for African-Americans in our nation’s government? My goal is to be sure that when there is any issue that aims to impact African-Americans, that policy-makers and journalists come to us and ask what the Joint Center thinks. I will be sure that we continue to drive public policy that will improve the lives of African-Americans.
LT: Now in your third month on the job, what is your biggest challenge? Everett: Working very hard to be heard. To give voices to people who are not normally heard and who are not in Washington. Having the necessary resources to do whatever it is we need to do.
Working Lunch appears every other week in Legal Times .

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