Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Alarm bells rang through the Democratic Party last week when political strategist Donna Brazile warned of an aggressive new drive by Republicans to lure more black voters.

The Democrats’ most-respected minority outreach tactician warned her party at the beginning of the 2004 election cycle not to “take African-American voters for granted.” Polls showed an increase in younger black voters registering as independents, not as Democrats. Many were drawn to President Bush’s campaign message of an “ownership society” and his faith-based initiatives to help the needy.

Miss Brazile’s warning was borne out: Mr. Bush increased his share of the black vote from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004. Black support was higher in key battleground states, according to Election Day exit polls.

In Florida, Mr. Bush’s support jumped from 7 percent to 13 percent. In Ohio, a pivotal state that won him the election, his share of the black vote went from 9 percent to 16 percent. Pennsylvania fell into John Kerry’s column, but Mr. Bush still polled 16 percent of the state’s black voters.

Miss Brazile warns: “It won’t take much for the GOP to garner from 12 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.”

Writing in the weekly Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Al Gore’s former campaign manager said that, at a civil rights forum she attended last week in Atlanta, the discussion turned to the subject of “blacks who lean Republican.”

The forum’s host, politically independent Bishop (Eddie) Long, pastor of Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, “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.

That was good news to Ken Mehlman, who managed Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign and is now the Republican national chairman. Mr. Mehlman is leading a stepped-up drive to reach out to black voters, often with the help of influential black religious leaders attracted by the GOP’s emphasis on religious values usually missing in the Democrats’ message.

“GOP leaders are quietly being escorted and introduced in the black community by leading ministers, like Bishop Long,” a base-broadening move that “should be cause for alarm” among Democratic leaders, Miss Brazile wrote.

Mr. Mehlman’s black outreach work began as soon as he took over the helm of the Republican National Committee in January, speaking in quick succession before an assortment of black forums, business organizations and other groups.

Addressing the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Trenton, N.J., last month, Mr. Mehlman told several hundred business owners that “the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is not complete without more African-American support and participation.”

At a well-attended “town hall” meeting in heavily black Prince George’s County, Md., some 250 people turned out to hear Mr. Mehlman in a question-and-answer dialogue. It was a rare event in a party that has all too often ignored the black community.

A chief adviser to Mr. Mehlman told me this week he plans to meet with and speak to a broad range of black groups in the coming weeks. A major speech is planned at predominantly black Howard University, and he plans to visit more black neighborhoods. “There will be a lot of community-type events within the African-American community,” this adviser told me.

Notably, Mr. Mehlman appeared last week on the nationally televised PBS talk show named after and hosted by Tavis Smiley, who sponsored the civil-rights meeting in Atlanta that alarmed Miss Brazile. An independent-minded black leader who wants a broader political dialogue in the black community, Mr. Smiley is being sounded out by the NAACP to become its next president, a sign that the venerable black organization may be ready to soften its often-harsh anti-GOP rhetoric.

Black voters remain the Democrats’ most loyal voting bloc, but they find a number of Republican issues appealing, and Mr. Mehlman believes if the GOP reaches out to them with a menu of choices, it can win a much larger share of their votes.

Polls show 60 percent of African-Americans support school choice vouchers to get their kids out of failing public schools. Mr. Bush’s emphasis on small-business ownership also resonates very strongly among upwardly mobile blacks, as does the chance to build a bigger retirement nest egg in Social Security personal investment accounts.

Mr. Mehlman’s offensive has the potential to make significant inroads into the Democrats’ once largely monolithic black vote, Miss Brazile says. “The GOP is preaching a new gospel to black voters yearning for answers” to age-old problems that still afflict their community. “Once they start listening to Republicans, some may even like what they hear.”

That warning from one of the party’s most respected political figures sent shock waves last week through the Democratic National Committee’s high command, who know that if their party loses 15 percent or so of the black vote, it will be in the minority for years to come.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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