- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

They are meeting quietly in heartland cities like Indianapolis — black Republicans with a plan they hope will garner 25 percent of the black vote for President Bush next year.

Bolstered by unprecedented Republican overtures to black voters, such as the $15 billion AIDS package to Africa and the Caribbean, appointments of blacks to key Cabinet positions, and the faith-based initiative, black Republicans are convinced they have a viable product to sell.

The effort includes an attempt to identify “closet Republicans” among blacks and encourage more of them to run for office.

Until now, the plan has been one of stealth, to avoid Democratic ridicule of a party that has failed to garner more than 16 percent of the black vote in any election since 1976.

“We have been doing this under the radar,” said Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator who is part of the Republican effort.

“It is the idea of engaging the people and of getting them able to go into their communities and let them know that the Republican Party is interested in them now, not three months before an election.”

Two meetings in January brought together members of Congress and the Republican National Committee with several influential black national Republicans, including Wall Street banker Harold Doley and Shannon Reeves, head of the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“What can we, as a party, do to be more inclusive?” was the question.

The question had many answers, especially in light of the fact that “getting the minority vote” is an election-cycle ritual for the party.

“I think Republicans are attracting a certain level of blacks,” said Lenora Fulani, a black woman who made runs for the presidency in 1988 and 1992. “Younger [black] people are seeing that the [Democratic] Party has had a lot of rhetoric but no results.”

Following the Circle City Classic in October in Indianapolis, an annual football game between black colleges that draws 150,000 mostly black people to the city, Leo S. Mackay, deputy secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs and a Bush appointee, sat down at a postgame party with a dozen local black Republicans.

“Having a member of the administration sit down with us bolstered us,” said Jackie Cissell, a local Republican and radio talk-show host. “It gave us a confidence that there really was a serious effort and also gave us something we could take into our community.”

Mr. Mackay said the visit was part of a national effort to find and encourage black candidates at a local level who will move up the ranks.

“It is a mark against our party that every black representative in Congress is a Democrat,” Mr. Mackay said.

Republicans hope to find more black candidates like Kirt Bennett, 35.

As a candidate for lieutenant governor in Louisiana, Mr. Bennett says “the media have stopped referring to me as the black Republican,” adding that his pro-business platform plays well in the 30 percent black state.

“The Republican Party does not have a problem with its message,” he said. “It has a problem finding messengers.”

Last week, Michael Brady received a call from the Republican National Committee. The committee is going to offer a series of workshops in southeast Florida, the state’s most solidly Democratic region, for fledgling black candidates.

“So what we are going to do is find out who might be interested in attending these, and who might be interested at the local level in running for office,” Mr. Brady said. “The idea is something that helps us get some of the closet black Republicans out of the closet and into public service.”

The election workshop is a new idea for the party, one that is used by special interest groups on the other side of the aisle.

Using the workshop as a device to court candidates is an intriguing approach, said Donna Brazile, a top minority-voter outreach adviser to the Democratic National Committee.

She has warned Democrats that they risk losing their near-monopoly on the black vote, citing a survey by the Joint Center last fall that concluded that “there has been a noteworthy change in black partisan identification” since the 2000 election.

“If African-Americans find their growth in politics at the statewide or local level,” she said, “then you could find some [blacks] going through what we call the shorter line — which is what we call the Republican line.”

Still, Republicans have been criticized by both friend and foe for efforts to build minority-voting blocs; critics say there is substance to the accusation of country-club sensibilities.

“Race remains the Republicans’ Achilles’ heel,” said Faye Anderson, a former vice chairwoman of the black Republican New Majority Council, who is now with the liberal National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

Candidate workshops, more outreach, more money and the most diverse Cabinet in history — will the combination work? Of course, said Mr. Williams.

“Trent Lott, that was the wake-up call,” said Mr. Williams, referring to the racially charged December episode that forced Mr. Lott from his slot as Senate majority leader.

Several key Republicans seized on the tumult over Mr. Lott, who said the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had succeeded in his segregationist 1948 presidential campaign.

“They realized that what is relevant is that people don’t think Republicans are like Trent Lott,” Mr. Williams said.

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