- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

After the presidential election of 2004, many political observers openly wondered how the president and the GOP would build on this new-found connection with a larger segment of the African-American electorate.

Were the party’s gains of the 2004 election a one-time aberration, a historic milestone that would not be surpassed? Or would it serve as a foundation for a long-term basis?

The answer would be gauged in two areas — mobilization efforts in off-election years and the emergence of African- American Republican candidates in preparing for the 2006 election cycle. With that in mind, the party’s efforts in recent months and the emergence of prominent African-American Republican candidates for 2006 indicate the GOP may be looking to the gains of 2004 as a starting point for a more sustained effort to increase support among African-Americans.

Off-election year mobilization efforts are a key indicator of a party’s commitment to any new constituency group. Far too often, both parties have been guilty of creating temporary alliances with African-Americans as an election looms, only to disappear once the polls close.

In the last three decades, Republicans have looked at the overwhelming loyalty African-Americans had shown to the Democratic Party as a deterrent to expending requisite resources on ongoing mobilization efforts. On the Democratic side, strategist Donna Brazile summed up their deficiencies in an article, saying, “Democrats are in the Stone Age when it comes to African-American outreach.”

So as we gauge the GOP’s progress since the election in reaching African-American voters it should be noted party leadership is taking preliminary steps in this off-election year to mobilize more support among African-Americans. RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman’s town hall meetings with African-Americans in various urban cities can be viewed as one way in which the GOP is seeking to expand on the gains of the 2004 elections.

For this effort to ultimately succeed, the feedback from these town hall meetings must lead to developing and passing legislation by the Republican-controlled Congress to address issues facing African-Americans in education, economic empowerment, civil rights and other areas.

If this occurs, support could increase even more among African-Americans in the 2006 elections and beyond. If the town hall meetings are not linked to tangible action, the gains of 2004 will be fleeting at best.

Another key component to watch will be the number of African-American Republican candidates in coming elections and the support they receive from the party for their campaigns. The town meetings, advisory committees and other partisan efforts will only succeed if as a complement to these efforts, we see more African-American Republican candidates for office on all levels of government and getting partisan support. One ongoing obstacles for the GOP remains the prevalent perception in recent decades that the Republican Party is a party that lacks African-Americans among its rank and file.

The Bush administration has been instrumental in changing this perception by appointing African-Americans to powerful Cabinet posts and other key offices.

Another positive sign for the GOP: African-American Republican candidates figure to loom large in some more hotly contested elections in 2006. In Pennsylvania, former NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann has expressed strong interest in a gubernatorial candidacy. In Ohio, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a key figure in the last presidential election, is an early conservative favorite for governor. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is mentioned prominently among desired candidates for the U.S. Senate seat which will be contested in 2006. If all or any combination of these candidates succeed, the GOP would have the opportunity to add personalities to their policy approach in building African-American support.

Based on the early returns, the GOP is working in earnest to build on the election gains among African-American voters. However, if there is one thing to be learned from the 2004 election, early returns do not always indicate the final outcome. In this case, let’s hope the GOP remains committed to building support among African-Americans via long-term increased communication and candidate development. If this happens, there is a good chance the election of 2004 will not be viewed as a historic milestone but rather a cornerstone for the ongoing increase of African-American support for the GOP.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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