- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, one of the highest-ranking elected black Republicans in the country, said he would like to see President Bush smooth over his rocky relationship with the NAACP and schedule more speeches in black communities.

Mr. Steele, in a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times, said he has discussed the matter with Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who recently sent a letter to the White House requesting a meeting with Mr. Bush.

“I spoke with Bush campaign Chairman Ken Mehlman and [Republican National Committee] Chairman Ed Gillespie and told them they should be receptive to it,” Mr. Steele said. Mr. Mehlman is expected to be named the new RNC chairman.

Mr. Steele said he spoke with Mr. Mfume in early November about the letter and expressed his interest in working to heal the tenuous relationship between the party and the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.

Mr. Bush has snubbed the past four invitations to address the NAACP membership during its national conventions, including last summer during the presidential campaign, which led Democrats to seize upon the issue.

White House officials have said that the NAACP has acted as a Democratic Party organization rather than a civil rights group, hindering any dialogue.

The Democrats criticized the president for ignoring blacks and their issues, although Mr. Bush did accept an invitation to speak with members of the National Urban League at their convention weeks later.

Mr. Mfume’s letter was sent Nov. 5, three days after the election, but the White House has not formally responded as yet, NAACP spokesman John White said.

“There has been no further discussion and no response from the White House, but there was a conversation between a White House staffer and our Washington [D.C.] field office director,” Mr. White said. “We’re glad that the lieutenant governor spoke up about it, though, and we hope for a positive response.”

However, Hillary Shelton, director of the D.C. office who participated in the conversation, said there is a chance for a meeting with the president.

“There was basically an understanding that [White House staffers] would talk to a number of policy people, including Karl Rove, and they will try to get back to us about setting up a meeting,” Mr. Shelton said.

He said the NAACP wants to talk to Mr. Bush about its issues, such as funding for urban schools, the No Child Left Behind Act, international AIDS funding, health care and unemployment.

“We have been critical of President Bush and his record, but it is not castigation. We just think there are better ways to do some of the things he wants to do and talk it over with him,” Mr. Shelton said.

Bush administration officials were unable to comment on the status of any discussions taking place or if there was interest from the president to meet with Mr. Mfume.

Mr. Steele said the president has an opportunity to show black voters that the Republican Party cares about their issues with the gesture and could improve black voter turnout for their candidates in future races.

He said, however, that he wasn’t surprised Mr. Bush received more support from the black community in this most recent election, gaining two percentage points nationally (11 percent in 2004, up from 9 percent in 2000) and larger numbers in key states like Ohio, where Mr. Bush received 16 percent of the black vote.

Mr. Steele said issues such as same-sex “marriage,” medical-malpractice reform and tax cuts resonated with many black voters, adding that the president could have done much better among that voting bloc if he had scheduled more appearances in black communities and spoke directly to them about his policies.

“We do very well getting out there and presenting the message,” Mr. Steele said, referring to himself, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the most prominent black Republicans who campaigned on the president’s behalf. “But at some point, the man himself has to show up.”

Mr. Steele said that at two different campaign stops, he heard blacks express an interest in hearing from Mr. Bush in person.

“I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, speaking in a room of 150 African Americans who were not Bush-friendly … and, you know, a woman came up to me at the end and told me she did not support George Bush ‘because George Bush has come to talk to whites in Milwaukee, but not in our community,’” Mr. Steele said. “I think more of a hands-on approach and engagement would have helped tremendously.”

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