TOWNS, Edolphus

TOWNS, Edolphus
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
1934–

Biography

Ed Towns emerged from North Carolina’s tobacco fields, mastered the sometimes turbulent politics of urban Brooklyn, and rose to chair the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform during a 30-year career in the U.S. House. Much of Towns’s low-key legislative style kept him focused on local concerns rather than cultivating a national presence which his senior status might have allowed. “I should jump out and push and get in front of the camera,” he once acknowledged, “but that’s just not my nature.”1

Edolphus (Ed) Towns was born on July 21, 1934, in Chadbourn, North Carolina, to Versie and Dolphus Towns. His father was a tobacco sharecropper. Towns attended the local public schools before graduating in 1956 from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. Towns served in the U.S. Army for two years before moving to New York City where he taught at Medgar Evers College, Fordham University, and in the city’s public schools. From 1965 to 1975 Towns served as director of the Metropolitan Hospital and then assistant administrator at Beth Israel Hospital. Towns earned a master’s degree in social work in 1973 from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Towns married the former Gwendolyn Forbes in 1960, and they have two children, Darryl and Deidra.2

Active in the Brooklyn Democratic organization, Towns won election as Democratic Party state committeeman for New York’s 40th assembly district (Brooklyn) in 1972. He became the first African American appointed as deputy borough president for Brooklyn in 1976, a position that Towns used to connect with the various social and political organizations in the borough.3 In 1982 when Democratic Representative Frederick W. Richmond resigned after being indicted on felony charges, Towns moved quickly to fill the vacancy. Redistricting that year had created a new Democratic district composed primarily of African-American and Hispanic voters in Northern Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Towns garnered the support of Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade H. Esposito and Democratic reformer Al Vann. “I expect to be the consensus candidate,” Towns predicted. Two other candidates split the Hispanic vote, and Towns won the primary by a plurality.4 He easily won the general election.5

Subsequent re-districting made Towns’s district more Democratic. Bedford-Stuyvesant remained the heart of the district while portions of Brooklyn fell away and Brooklyn Heights was added.6 The 2000 Census led to parts of south-central Brooklyn and Canarsie being absorbed into his district. Towns’s constituency was described as one of the state’s most diverse and solidly Democratic, comprising black, Hispanic, Caribbean, and Jewish voters.7 Towns’s winning margins in the general elections hovered at 85 percent or more in his 14 re-election bids.8

Nevertheless, Towns often faced challengers in the Democratic primaries. As the 1998 race neared, for instance, Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Clarence Norman actively tried to recruit a challenger to Towns and former Democratic mayor David Dinkins endorsed primary challenger Barry Ford. During the primary Towns pointed out that he had “never seen [Ford] at a town hall meeting, a community board meeting or a tenants association meeting.” He quipped, “This is one Ford this Congressional District won’t buy.” Towns won the primary with 52 percent of the vote.9

Towns served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) during the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), when its membership jumped from 26 to 40. He assisted in resolving a rift between African Americans and the Democratic presidential nominee, then-Governor William (Bill) Clinton of Arkansas, when Clinton criticized rap star Sister Souljah for her racial views.10 Towns, however, did face criticism for his management of CBC financial resources.11

In Washington Towns first served on the Committees on Government Operations (later Oversight and Government Reform), Public Works and Transportation, and Select Narcotics Abuse and Control. He remained on Government Operations for his entire House career.12 Towns swapped membership on Public Works and Transportation for Energy and Commerce in 1989, and the House ended the Select Committee in 1993.13 For more than a decade, Towns led subcommittees of Government Operations that focused on human resource management and efficiency in government. During the 111th Congress (2009–2011) Towns became Chairman of the full Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.14

Late in his career, Towns voted against the Democratic Party leadership on high-profile issues such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005 and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007, which sought to prohibit hiring discrimination based on sexual orientation. His maverick streak earned him the rebuke of party leaders and limited his committee advancement. “I respect leadership,” he said. “But if I feel something is not in the best interest of the people I represent, I have to deviate from the normal pattern.”15

In 2009, Towns won the chairmanship of Oversight and Government Reform when the preceding chairman, Henry Waxman of California, moved to Energy and Commerce. Becoming Chairman of Oversight and Government Reform required Towns to relinquish his seat on Energy and Commerce. Towns led committee investigations of the Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey hybrid tilt-rotor aircraft, Secret Service procedures after a White House state dinner was crashed, and Toyota vehicle safety.16 When Republicans retook control of the House and Towns lost his chairmanship after the 2010 midterm elections, he was allowed to return to Energy and Commerce.

Towns cultivated a restrained style and won modest legislative victories early in his career. He co-sponsored legislation with Representative Tom McMillen of Maryland and Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey to require colleges to report the graduation rates of their student athletes “If we can have reporting as to the on-time arrivals of airlines,” Towns argued, “surely we can let student-athletes know whether they are likely to receive a useful college degree if they sign a letter of intent at ‘X’ University.” The legislation became the Student Right to Know Act, enacted during the 101st Congress (1989–1991).17 As a former college athlete, Towns retained his interest in preventing student athletes from being cheated of an education. During the 107th Congress (2001–2003) he introduced a measure that would put sports agents under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission in order to stop unethical recruitment practices.18

Having also worked as a hospital administrator, health care reform ranked high among Towns’s legislative priorities, and he hoped to improve access to health services in underserved communities, including Medicare drug coverage and alcohol treatment programs for pregnant women. He also lobbied to increase reimbursements for nurse midwives and physician assistants.19 During the 103rd Congress (1993–1995) Towns took advantage of his subcommittee chairmanship on Government Reform and Oversight to review the Food and Drug Administration’s pharmaceutical regulation.20 By the 105th Congress (1997–1999) Towns focused on the availability of breast cancer screenings and better training for nursing home staff.21 When President Bill Clinton’s health care reform package came out in favor of a “managed competition” approach over the more liberal “single payer” system, Towns became critical of the President’s proposal. Towns claimed that the administration’s approach would leave minority medical providers and minority medical schools behind. He also predicted that the Clinton program would prevent companies from developing new medicines, and would affect his district’s economy.22

During the 103rd Congress (1993–1995) Towns pushed preventive medicine as an alternative to health care reform. He encouraged healthier diets, sought money for funding poison-prevention programs, and worked to convince city planners to build new waste incinerators away from minority communities.23 He also fought the National Cancer Institute in February 1996 after its recommendation that women under the age of 50 could go without annual mammograms. “Both early detection and screening in younger women can be beneficial in combating this disease,” he said. “If you can recommend an appropriate daily allowance for vegetables in the American diet, you should be able to recommend lifesaving screenings for American women.”24

Towns retired at the end of the 112th Congress (2011–2013), still adhering to his low-profile legislative style.25

Footnotes

1Politics in America 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2007): 701.

2“Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, 1774–Present,” http://bioguide.congress.gov; “Official Biography of Edolphus Towns,” http://www.house.gov/towns/bio.shtml (accessed 30 November 2007); Almanac of American Politics 2012 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 1142–1143; Politics in America 2012 (Washington, D.C.: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2011): 681–682; “AP Candidate Bios,” The Associated Press Political Service, 2000.

3“Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, 1774–Present,” http://bioguide.congress.gov; Almanac of American Politics 2012: 1142–1143; Politics in America 2012: 681–682.

4Jane Perlez, “Towns Wins in Bid for Richmond’s Seat,” 24 September 1982, New York Times: B7; Almanac of American Politics 1984 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, 1983): 810; Almanac of American Politics 1986 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, 1985): 926–927; Politics in America 1990 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1989): 1027; Jane Perlez, “3 Minority Candidates Seek Richmond’s Seat,” 27 August 1982, New York Times: B3; Maurice Carroll, “Richmond’s in the Race But under a Cloud,” 22 August 1982, New York Times

5“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/; Politics in America 1990: 1027.

6Politics in America 1994 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1993): 1050.

7Politics in America 2004 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003): 701.

8“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

9Contemporary Black Biography, 19, (Detroit: Gale Pub., 1998); Jonathan P. Hicks, “Expert Fund-Raiser Challenges Congressman,” 8 June 1998, New York Times: B10; Jonathan P. Hicks, “Relationship Begins to Warm Between Friends Turned Foes,” 30 January 1999, New York Times: B5; Almanac of American Politics 2000 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1999): 1124–1125; Politics in America 2000 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1999): 934.

10Politics in America 1994: 1049.

11Politics in America 1998 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1997): 991.

12Government Operations underwent several subsequent name changes: becoming Government Reform in 1999 and Oversight and Government Reform in 2007.

13Garrison Nelson, ed., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947–2002, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1993): 887–888; Garrison Nelson and Charles Stewart III, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1993–2010 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011): 984–985; Congressional Directory, 112th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011): 491.

14Towns’s committee and subcommittee leadership can be found in the relevant Congressional Directories published during Towns’s tenure. See also, “Black Americans Who Have Chaired Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1885 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Data/Black-American-Chairs-of-Subcommittees/.

15Politics in America 2008: 701.

16Almanac of American Politics 2012: 1142.

17“Official Biography of Edolphus Towns,” http://www.house.gov/towns/bio.shtml (accessed 30 November 2007); quote from Politics in America, 1992 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly 1991): 1021.

18Robert P. Hey, “Education: Congress Pushes for Athlete Graduation Reports,” 5 June 1989, Christian Science Monitor: 7; Politics in America, 2006 (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005): 715.

19Politics in America 1994: 1049.

20Almanac of American Politics 1996 (Washington, DC: National Journal, 1995): 932; Politics in America 1996 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1995): 906.

21Politics in America 1998: 989.

22Politics in America 1996: 906.

23Ibid.

24Politics in America 1998: 989.

25Aaron Blake and Ed O’Keefe, “Rep. Edolphus Towns, a New York Democrat, Won’t Seek Reelection,” 15 April 2012, Washington Post: np.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Columbia University Libraries
Rare Book and Manuscript Library

New York, NY
Papers: In the Arthur Levitt Papers, 1948-2001, 26 linear feet. Correspondents include Edolphus Towns.

Yale University Library
Divinity Library Special Collections

New Haven, CT
Papers: In the Washington Office on Africa Records, Addendum B, ca. 1970-1996, 35 linear feet. Correspondents include Edolphus Towns.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Edolphus Towns" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Commerce
  • House Committee - Energy and Commerce
  • House Committee - Government Operations
    • Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations - Chair
  • House Committee - Government Reform
  • House Committee - Government Reform and Oversight
  • House Committee - Oversight and Government Reform - Chair
    • Government Management, Organization, and Procurement - Chair
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control
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