- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said yesterday that despite the party’s significant progress in attracting black supporters and candidates, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and lingering mistrust stemming from the 2000 presidential vote recount have posed great challenges.

“Katrina has made it harder because people saw a government at every level — federal, state and local — not operating the way it should,” he said.

He added that the constant rehashing of blunders and mistakes associated with the slow emergency response — without talking about policies to deal with issues of poor education, inadequate work-force readiness and poverty that left many blacks more vulnerable to the storm’s devastation — hasn’t helped either.

The chairman said he has learned much in his 46 conversations with minority communities coast to coast. He said that the primary issues blacks care about are education, health care, jobs and opportunities to build wealth, but that since the fall he has heard an earful — “and rightfully so” — about Katrina at every stop.

Mr. Mehlman spoke to a small gathering of black reporters yesterday before an event honoring Black History Month, while celebrating progress made this election cycle through the RNC’s outreach efforts.

There are more than 50 black Republicans running for federal, statewide and local offices this year, with more announcing candidacies daily, like Ada M. Fisher, who last week announced she will challenge Rep. Melvin Watt, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in North Carolina’s 12th District

But Mr. Mehlman focused on two candidates, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele — running to fill the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes — and former Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who is running for governor of Pennsylvania.

“I can only talk about those two because they are nominees running unopposed [in Republican primaries], but there are other great candidates, like Ken Blackwell, who is running for governor of Ohio, and [the Rev.] Keith Butler, who is running for Senate in Michigan,” he said.

He said state Republican parties are clearing the field for black candidates while Democrats “are putting up obstacles to one of their Senate candidates in Maryland, Kweisi Mfume, making it tough for him and anointing someone else.”

Mr. Mfume, a former congressman from Baltimore and past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has had a difficult time raising money for his primary race against Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a white Democrat.

Asked whether this “clearing the field” strategy left the party open to accusations of tokenism, Mr. Mehlman said it was not the RNC pushing it, but state parties concluding that Mr. Steele and Mr. Swann were the best candidates they had.

One goal of the RNC is to go beyond minority outreach to inclusion, he said.

“Outreach is when I go and speak to people about the party; inclusion is when Michael Steele does it,” he said. “We are not the first folks who have done this or tried this, but what is different today is we are upfront and visible with our commitment and recruiting.”

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