- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

President Bush yesterday told hundreds of black leaders in a meeting at the White House that his policies would help black Americans, an overture that was reprised hours later by the new chairman of the Republican Party.

The moves were part of a concerted effort to build on small but significant Republican gains in black support during last year’s election. Mr. Bush won 11 percent of black votes, up from 9 percent in 2000, according to exit polls.

“We’re committed to continuing to grow that percentage, and we recognize that it’s going to require a long investment,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who last night kicked off a series of his own outreach meetings with black leaders.

“I strongly believe that if we lay out our policies and lay out our vision, that we have a tremendous opportunity,” he said.

Mr. Bush, whose national approval rating yesterday reached 57 percent, the highest in more than a year, sought to capitalize on that popularity by arguing that his first four years in office had benefited blacks.

“Today, the minority homeownership rate in America is at an all-time high — that’s incredibly good news,” he said. “African Americans can pass on a better life and a better nation to their children and their grandchildren, and that’s what we want in America.”

The president’s 15-minute speech in the East Room was interrupted 17 times by applause from an audience that included black clergy, veterans, business leaders and members of Congress. Among those in attendance were Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, and Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“We will continue to enforce laws against racial discrimination in education and housing and public accommodations,” Mr. Bush said. “We’ll continue working to spread hope and opportunity to African Americans with no inheritance but their character — by giving them greater access to capital and education.”

Hours after the president’s pep talk, Mr. Mehlman held the first in a series of meetings with blacks “to highlight how Republican policies are empowering people of color,” according to the RNC.

Mr. Mehlman, who was the president’s re-election campaign manager, was joined by Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a black Republican, at last night’s session in predominantly black Prince George’s County.

“My message tonight is, if you give us a chance, we’ll give you a choice,” Mr. Mehlman said in an interview before the closed meeting. “A choice in politics, a choice in education, a choice to own your own small business, to have a nest egg you can pass along to your children when you retire, a choice in health care.

“In so many different areas, our policies offer access to the American dream to folks who haven’t had access,” he added. “If you’re looking at which of the parties gives folks the ladder up, I think that the Republican policies today are those policies.”

Mr. Bush said he is already pushing such policies.

“HIV-AIDS brings suffering and fear into so many lives, and so we need to focus on fighting this disease among those with the highest rates of new cases — African-American men and women,” he said. “We need to give our young people, especially young men in inner cities, better options than apathy or gangs and jail.”

Yesterday’s speech came just two weeks after the president held meetings in the White House with black clergy and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mr. Bush has often received hostile treatment from black groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 2000, an NAACP ad sought to link Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, to the murder of James Byrd, a black man dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by racists in Jasper, Texas.

The NAACP is currently fighting an Internal Revenue Service investigation of accusations that the group violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in partisan political activity. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has called the Republican Party “a crazed swarm of right-wing locusts.”

Mr. Bush has distanced himself from some black leaders. He did not address the NAACP last year, but he has met with officials from the Urban League and other black groups.

Encouraged by his improved performance among blacks in last year’s election, Mr. Bush has redoubled his efforts to woo black support in his second term.

To that end, the president yesterday used the occasion of Black History Month to talk about the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“It’s important that our children know that there was a time in their nation’s history when one in every seven human beings was the property of another,” said Mr. Bush, who in 2003 signed the law creating the new museum. “They need to know how families were separated, denied even the comfort of suffering together. It’s an important lesson of a shameful period that the young must never forget.”

Mr. Mehlman said blacks should no longer be forced to choose between a “Democratic Party that takes the African-American vote for granted and a Republican Party that ignores the African-American vote because it doesn’t think it can win it.”

He added: “I think there’s a real chance here to explain that our party not only shares values with a lot of folks in the African-American community, but offers policies that will provide opportunities to folks which our friends on the other side don’t offer.”

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