- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

DENVER Four years ago, Joe Rogers was a rising Republican star.
At 33, Mr. Rogers had just been elected Colorado's lieutenant governor, making him the youngest in the nation and the only black Republican to hold a state's No. 2 post. Republican politicos were soon predicting that Mr. Rogers, a bright, engaging lawyer, could make history as the nation's first black Republican governor.
This year, the only speculation surrounding Mr. Rogers is whether he can piece together the tatters of his political career. After a series of political and financial missteps, Mr. Rogers lost his bid for his party's congressional nomination during the summer, placing fourth in a field of four.
For Republicans trying to lure black voters into the "big tent," his exit from the political stage couldn't come at a worse time. With the retirement of Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., the only black Republican in Congress, the Republican Party finds itself facing a void of top black elected officials despite its renewed commitment to minority outreach.
What's more, there are few on the immediate horizon who can fill the gap of elected black officials within the Republican Party. Only nine black Republicans ran for Congress this year, with six receiving the party's nomination. This is down from a high of 24 black Republicans who ran in 2000 and is the lowest number since 1990. Fewer than a half-dozen are running for statewide office.
Coming on the heels of a lackluster 2000 performance President Bush received just 9 percent of the black vote, the lowest for a Republican presidential nominee since 1964 black conservatives said the sparse candidate field this year could come back to haunt the party.
"It's foolhardy on the part of the Republican Party," said Niger Innis, spokesman for the conservative Congress of Racial Equality and son of civil rights leader Roy Innis. "President Bush has done an extraordinary thing by putting blacks in high Cabinet positions real insider positions and I want to applaud the president for that.
"But it's foolhardy for the Republicans to go from 24 to nine in a critical year like this," he said.
Black GOP renaissance?
Still, national Republicans insist this isn't the start of a trend. While the party has yet to build a team of elected black officials, the field of candidates has been growing albeit erratically for two decades. Since 1990, the number of congressional hopefuls has averaged 18, said David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"I think it's a blip, not a slip," said Pamela Mantis, Republican National Committee deputy press secretary in charge of minority affairs.
And though this year's field may be smaller, the candidates on average are stronger than in past years. Most hold elective office already, which gives them a jump on fund raising and campaigning.
"What's happening is this: Where perhaps there was once an emphasis on the quantity of candidates, the emphasis is now on the quality of the candidates and whether there are openings in the race," said Phyllis Berry Myers, president of the Centre for New Black Leadership.
Despite that, polls show that all six of the congressional hopefuls are trailing their opponents, each of whom is a Democratic incumbent. If any candidate can be considered the heir to Mr. Watts as the party's most visible black spokesman, it's probably Michael S. Steele, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Maryland, Mr. Innis said.
Mr. Steele and Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are running a surprisingly strong race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Adm. Charles Larson in Democratic-leaning Maryland.
"If Michael Steele becomes lieutenant governor in a Beltway state after beating a Kennedy well, if he isn't the spokesman for black Republicans after Nov. 5, I don't know who is," Mr. Innis said.
The party has another strong state contender in Jennette Bradley, who is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Ohio Gov. Bob Taft. In the congressional race for Nevada's 1st District, Republican Lynette Boggs McDonald has edged to within eight percentage points of the Democratic front-runner, Rep. Shelley Berkley.
The news is better at the state legislative and local level, where 30 more are seeking office. "We're seeing victories at that level; it's the federal level that's hard to crack," said Alvin Williams, president of Black America's Political Action Committee (BAMPAC), which supports "common-sense" candidates.
Few run, fewer elected
The drop in black Republican candidates comes at a time when the spectrum of prominent black conservatives has never been richer. Where the Hoover Institution's Thomas Sowell was once a voice in the wilderness, he's been joined by black intellectuals such as author and professor Shelby Steele, columnist Joseph Perkins and presidential contender and talk-show host Alan Keyes.
The Bush White House arguably has more high-profile black Cabinet officials than any previous administration, starting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Education Secretary Rod Paige.
But persuading black Republicans to throw their hats into the ring has proved trickier. "I see there's so many black Republican leaders out there, but not all want to run for office," Miss Mantis said.
She lists several obstacles, starting with fund raising. Building a campaign war chest can be difficult when most political action committees geared toward black candidates are heavily Democratic.
An exception is BAMPAC, founded by Mr. Keyes, which supports mostly black conservatives. The committee has poured nearly $200,000 into Mrs. Boggs McDonald's campaign, enabling her to keep her television ads on the air.
Black Republicans also face the derision of black Democrats, who accuse them of being sellouts or worse, such as singer Harry Belafonte's comparison of Mr. Powell to a "house slave" because he is part of the Bush administration.
Other examples from the campaign trail abound. Mr. Ehrlich told voters at a Jewish school last week that Townsend supporters threw Oreos at Mr. Steele during a debate, a slur designed to mark him as someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside.
Republican Charles Hargrave, running a long-shot congressional campaign against Democratic Rep. George Miller in San Francisco, says his requests to speak at black churches have been ignored because of his party affiliation.
Democrats who give black Republicans a chance may draw their party's wrath. In Nevada, black Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Neal, a state senator, broke ranks this year to endorse Mrs. Boggs McDonald and paid the price.
"Because of that, the Democratic Party has not given him any support," Mrs. Boggs McDonald said. "And it's opened a lot of people's eyes. What I'm hearing is, 'Why would someone who's been loyal to the Democratic Party all these years be kicked to the curb just because he supported me?'"
Some black Republicans worry that the party has essentially given up on them to concentrate on the Hispanic community. "In our party, the assumption is that African-American votes are always going to be Democratic votes and the focus should be on Hispanic votes," Mr. Rogers said.
Miss Mantis denied it. "We're reaching out to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims," she said. "What's important to one group is important to all groups."
Then there's the question of the Republican Party's financial commitment. Some campaigns are chafing at the lack of support, while party officials insist that they're trying to direct their resources where they'll have the most impact, regardless of race.
Mr. Hargrave, for example, said he was told early on by a top California Republican official that the money wouldn't be forthcoming. Analysts agree that he faces an uphill battle against the entrenched incumbent, Mr. Miller.
The party official "said it was because I have no name ID; I'm running against an incumbent who's been in office for 28 years, and they are directing all resources to [Bill] Simon's gubernatorial campaign," Mr. Hargrave told the San Francisco Chronicle.
In Wisconsin, the lack of national party support for black Republican congressional candidate Ron Greer prompted a heated response from prominent conservative activist Paul Weyrich. In a Sept. 27 column for the Free Congress Foundation, "The GOP: Still Trying to be a Lily-White Party?" Mr. Weyrich suggested that the Republican Party may be snubbing Mr. Greer because of his race.
Mr. Greer is a former firefighter active in prison ministry and exhausted his war chest to win a multicandidate primary, which he did convincingly, with 61 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, has raised more than $1 million.
"Instead of the GOP rushing to provide him with the maximum allocation of money allowed under the law, Greer's party has told everyone who will listen that he has no chance to win," Mr. Weyrich wrote. "If a white candidate had won the primary, would the party still be saying he or she had no chance? Is it because Greer comes from the wrong side of the tracks that the GOP's country-club set has nixed him?"
In Nevada, Mrs. Boggs McDonald has received considerably more support from the Republican National Committee, including television ads and campaign stops by former President George Bush and Mr. Watts. But the lion's share of Republican funding has gone to Jon Porter, running in Nevada's new 3rd District, a move that has opened the party to criticism.
"In many ways, especially in the area of long-term demographic strategy, you would think the Boggs McDonald campaign would rank among the national GOP's biggest races," said Las Vegas Review Journal columnist John L. Smith. "The fact it isn't says far more about the heart of the party than the will of its candidate."
Naive about race
It may also say something about the Republican Party's struggle to come to terms with the race issue. In a party that champions a colorblind society and equality of opportunity over equality of outcome, the practice of recruiting black candidates to appeal to black voters strikes some Republicans as an ideological cheat.
Ideally, they say, the party's message should be enough to attract voters of all backgrounds, no matter who is the messenger. Asked how the party would rebound from the loss of Mr. Watts, one RNC spokesman said, "Well, regardless of that, the message stays the same."
That explains in part the Democratic Party's dominance among black voters, Mr. Bositis said. "There are Republicans who think that if they just get the message right, black voters will be attracted to it," he said. "But they've been saying that for 20 years."
He argued that the Republican Party's failure to make more inroads among black voters stems from a lack of will. The fear is that pushing for black votes would offend the party's base, consisting primarily of conservative, white Southerners and Westerners.
"The Republican Party would have to moderate its policies. Bill Clinton had big success with moving the Democratic Party to the center," Mr. Bositis said. "For Republicans to get additional black support, there would have to be a Republican who moved the party to the center. And George Bush is at the far right of the party."
Mr. Innis, however, disagrees. The party's biggest obstacle in winning over blacks remains the Democratic Party, he said, which has for decades demonized the Republicans in black communities.
"Black voters have been monolithic because of the Democratic Party's race-baiting machine," he said. "They scare black voters into thinking the Republican Party is the racist party. They've got a well-oiled machine, and you've got to counteract that."
But Republicans haven't, he said, because when it comes to race they're "naive and timid."
"It's not part of the Republican game plan to play the race card. They're results-oriented, not rhetoric-oriented," Mr. Innis said.
"They think that their message and concrete actions should speak louder than words," he said. "But the Republicans have to understand that, believe it or not, deeds do not speak for themselves. You need an appropriate spokesman for the message, because if it's Democratic demagoguery versus Republican deeds, demagoguery will win every time."
Brighter future?
More important than the number of black Republicans running for national office this year is the number running for state legislatures and town councils, Mrs. Myers said. That's the "farm team," and building it isn't necessarily the national party's job.
"When you look at the role of the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee, their job is to elect candidates now, not the long-term, sustained effort this is going to require," she said. "It's going to take some entity outside the party apparatus to carry this forward. And it has to come from within the black community."
There are signs that the community may be ready to take a second look at the Republican Party. A 2001 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that blacks 35 and younger were less likely to describe themselves as Democrats than their parents.
"We're seeing a divestment of young blacks from the Democratic Party," Mrs. Myers said. "They're not Republican yet they're not over that divide but they're becoming more independent. They don't have that attachment to the Democrats that older black voters who came out of the civil rights movement have."
Meanwhile, Republicans are starting to make some of the right moves by taking their message into urban communities, she said, by doing things such as buying political ads on urban radio.
"I've been in Republican politics since 1976, and I do see things are getting better," Mrs. Myers said. "Many more people are running for office. They're more in tune to what we need to do to win campaigns."
Mr. Innis agreed.
"After 2002 is over and [presidential adviser] Karl Rove gets a chance to exhale, Republicans are going to seriously look to get vehicles for their message," he said. "And the best vehicles are candidates."

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