Sunday, May 15, 2005

City Councilman Otto Banks, the biggest vote-getter in Harrisburg, Pa., held a campaign fundraiser in the Pennsylvania state capital Friday with the help of Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman that sent new fears rippling through Democratic ranks.

Mr. Banks, 33, a political newcomer, stunned Harrisburg’s black community when he left the Democratic Party in March to become a Republican, starting what Mr. Mehlman and other Republican officials say they hope will become a realignment trend that will consign the Democrats to permanent minority status.

Mr. Mehlman said Friday that he met with Mr. Banks before the party switch and promised that if he joined the Republicans, ?I would go up to Harrisburg and help him raise money for his campaign. This is a priority of mine, to bring more African-Americans into the party of Lincoln. I’m committed to doing it in many ways.?

The crowd of 60 or so who attended the buffet breakfast, which featured Mr. Mehlman and raised $22,000, included many of Mr. Banks’ black supporters, among them clergymen. ?It was a very racially diverse group of people, about half white and half African-American,? said Josh Wilson, the state Republican Party’s communications director.

Mr. Banks was little-known outside Harrisburg before he joined the Republican Party. But that switch, and Mr. Mehlman’s high-profile role in his re-election campaign, have deepened concerns among Democratic leaders such as campaign strategist Donna Brazile, who worry that they are losing their base.

?I thought that by now Ken would run out of gas [with his black outreach efforts], but it’s clear to me that he is serious. He is reaching out to elected officials, trying to convert some elected officials,? Miss Brazile said. ?This is another sign that Republicans this time around will not ignore the African-American community.?

Mr. Banks, a Pennsylvania State University graduate who promotes educational outreach and describes himself as a ?progressive Republican,? said Friday that he voted for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate for president last year, then ?took some time off and really started to do some soul-searching. I realized that many of the ownership and opportunity issues I stood behind were actually part of the president’s program.

?The Democrats have definitely taken their African-American base for granted. We have lost our influence in the Democratic Party and, by losing that, have lost our ability to influence policies in our community,? he said.

?There’s been a huge ripple? in the Democratic Party as a result of his switch, he said. ?More people of color are starting to take a second look at the Republican Party.?

?Many leaders in the African-American community are with Otto on this and support him on this,? said Eileen B. Melvin, the state’s Republican Party chairman.

In March, Miss Brazile said that Mr. Mehlman’s campaign to court black voters ?should be cause for alarm? among Democrats.

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