Monday, September 1, 2008

President Bush eight years ago aimed to overcome the Republican Party’s apathy toward black voters, the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting bloc.

But with Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential nominee, the Republicans face a reversal of the progress they have made among black voters over the past eight years. Even some long-time black Republicans are considering supporting Mr. Obama because of the “historic” opportunity to elect a black man to the country’s highest office.

Still, black conservatives say the Republican Party should not give up on black voters in the long term, especially as the minority community acquires greater wealth.

Michael L. Williams, a black Republican and chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, says Mr. Obama’s candidacy has kept the Republican Party “at a standstill.”

“Obviously, the historic nature of Senator Obama’s candidacy is profound and extremely significant. It puts us in a position where we’re running against a headwind,” says Mr. Williams, who is expected to run for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s seat if she vacates it to run for governor. “But I don’t think it’s moved us backwards.”

Headwinds were blowing before the 2006 midterm elections, which proved disastrous for black conservatives. All three black men running for statewide offices - then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for U.S. Senate in Maryland, Ken Blackwell for Ohio governor, and Lynn Swann for Pennsylvania governor - lost.

Currently, there are 11 black Republicans in state legislatures around the country: eight House members and three state senators, according to Rufus Montgomery, chairman of the Georgia Black Republican Council.

Meanwhile, Republican outreach to black voters in this election cycle has not matched the intensity of then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman in 2004, Republican and Democratic officials said.

“The GOP is so behind in outreach. Ken Mehlman put the party on track to both recruit solid black candidates to run under the GOP’s banner and attract black voters who share the party’s conservative values,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist.

“The tent hasn’t closed, but it’s clearly not nearly as open as before,” Ms. Brazile said. “Luckily, Michael Steele will speak at the GOP convention. But that’s not enough. Mehlman created an active outreach effort.”

RNC spokesman Sean Conner said that current RNC Chairman Mike Duncan “has visited 38 states in the last 16 months, and our party’s nominee [Sen. John McCain] has participated in important African-American national events, such as the NAACP conference and the Urban League convention.”

“We’re looking forward to increased support from the African-American community, and will compete for each vote within the various ethnic communities of our country,” Mr. Conner said.

In fact, Mr. Williams, who served in various posts during President George H.W. Bush‘s administration, also will speak at the Republican National Convention this week in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday night, just before Mr. McCain.

But state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, the only black Republican in the Florida legislature, said Mr. McCain’s outreach to black voters has been “a well-kept secret” and that Republican efforts in the black community continue to be sporadic.

“It needs to be ongoing visibility in the communities, that it just doesn’t disappear after the election. It has to be long term,” said Mrs. Carroll, a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. “Sometimes [Republicans] think it’s not worth it going into these communities, but if you don’t get out there, then you’ll never know.”

Mr. Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, defended Mr. McCain, saying that even if he has not focused on “outreach” to blacks and other minorities, his economic policies will help the poor and middle class.

“You can’t put it specifically in the context of ‘This is for black people.’ That’s the Republican way. We don’t want to categorize people,” Mr. Steele said.

Mr. Steele also said Mr. Obama, who came to Maryland twice in 2006 to campaign for Mr. Steele’s opponent, Benjamin L. Cardin, has not shown how he’ll turn his promise of “hope” and “change” into reality.

“You don’t go in and chastise folks, ‘You need to be a better father.’ Well … we all knew that,” Mr. Steele said, referring to comments by Mr. Obama that also have been criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “What are you going to do to make sure these young men end up in classrooms and not in prisons? I agree with the words, but where’s the meat? How do we translate those words into action?”

Mr. Steele and other black conservatives praised Mr. Bush for his efforts on the part of the black community, which have often been overshadowed by the president’s prickly relationship with groups like the NAACP and by the government’s woeful response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina.

Specifically, they noted that Mr. Bush has increased homeownership among black families, increased test scores among black students in inner-city schools through the No Child Left Behind program, empowered black churches through his office of faith-based programs and given “unprecedented” levels of funding to historically black colleges.

The president’s decision to send $15 billion over five years to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS in Africa, as well as to combat malaria and other diseases, also has impressed the black community, they said.

In addition, Mr. Bush appointed black men and women to some of the highest posts in government: The president’s secretary of state in his first term was retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and currently is Condoleezza Rice.

“There’s been a gross underestimation of the administration’s efforts to empower families,” Mr. Steele said. “I partly blame them. The administration has not been very good at touting their successes.”

Black support grew slightly for Mr. Bush, from 8 percent of the black vote in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004.

Mr. Steele and Mr. Williams remain among the few nationally known black conservatives who see a growing number of younger black voters who may be open in the future to voting Republican. These voters are the sons and daughters of the civil rights generation, are less instinctively loyal to the Democratic Party and are more focused on economic policies that will help them create and grow businesses, the black conservatives say.

Mr. Williams said that once a black Republican is elected governor or U.S. senator, “that will be a game-changing moment for Republican politics, because there will be a person that one will be able to identify with as a sitting member of the political class who is an African-American.”

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