Wednesday, March 2, 2005

An aggressive Republican campaign to court black voters with the help of church leaders “should be cause for alarm” among Democrats, who risk losing a larger share of their most loyal political constituency, says Democratic strategist Donna Brazile.

Miss Brazile, one of her party’s most respected voter outreach specialists, warned Democrats at the start of the 2004 election cycle: “Don’t take African-American voters for granted.” At the end of that cycle, President Bush had increased his share of the black vote to 11 percent nationally and by 13 percent to 16 percent in battleground states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Now, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is leading a stepped-up drive to lure black voters into the party, with the help of influential ministers in black Baptist churches. And Miss Brazile is sending her party a new warning: The Republicans could make deeper inroads in the black community by the next election.

“It won’t take much for the GOP to garner 12 percent to 15 percent of the black vote in future elections, as some blacks are starting to believe the community is not well-served when one party takes their votes for granted and the other party doesn’t work to earn them,” she wrote in this week’s Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

What alarmed her was a civil rights forum she attended last week in Atlanta, sponsored by the black PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley, where “we found ourselves discussing new players in the dialogue — blacks who lean Republican.”

Notably, politically independent Bishop Eddie Long, the forum’s host and the black pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, “who with other leading pastors has met with President Bush, was quick to point out he enjoyed the new relationship and dialogue” with Republicans, she said.

Bishop Long is one of a growing list of black preachers who Mr. Mehlman hopes “will undertake a new mission within the GOP,” Miss Brazile said.

Mr. Mehlman’s outreach work began as soon as he took over the helm of the RNC in January, speaking in quick succession before an assortment of black forums, business organizations and other groups. Speaking to the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Trenton, N.J., last week, he told several hundred black business owners that “the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is not complete without more African-American support and participation.”

Mr. Mehlman plans to meet with other black groups in the weeks and months to come, RNC officials said yesterday.

Miss Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, boosted black turnout in that election by enlisting pastors, a technique she says Mr. Mehlman and the Republicans are employing.

“While Democrats continue to rebuild after their setbacks in the 2004 elections, GOP leaders are quietly being escorted and introduced in the black community by leading ministers, like Bishop Long,” she said.

Democratic officials reacted cautiously yesterday to Miss Brazile’s warning, acknowledging they were going to have to work harder to block the RNC’s attempted inroads into their party’s base.

“The Democrats cannot take the African-American vote for granted. While they have been a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, neither Democrats nor Republicans can rest on tradition,” said Jano Cabrera, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. “Both need to make the case why they are better suited to represent and fight for African Americans.”

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