ATLANTA — From gatherings at historically black colleges to the podiums of civil rights conventions, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has criticized and apologized for his party’s poor history with black voters.
He has said he would address issues important to blacks — home and business ownership, education, wealth building — and declared Republicans will not engage in racially divisive politics. He also promised to persevere until “African-Americans come back home to the party of Lincoln.”
“And we are not going to stop,” Mr. Mehlman says. “This is not something where we are going to get results right away. We will maintain a consistent, stable effort from now on.”
He has done it within shouting distance of his counterpart — Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.
At the 30th annual National Association of Black Journalists convention last week, Mr. Mehlman characterized the Democratic Party as “being the biggest beneficiaries of racial polarization.”
“The most racially divisive ad run in the 2000 campaign was … an ad that associated George W. Bush with two people who murdered a black man in Texas … they should stop it, too,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Mr. Mehlman dueled with Mr. Dean at three other minority conferences this summer including the National Urban League, the National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Mr. Dean said the competition has been a wake-up call.
“It is good to have this debate, and we needed to have this debate, because I think it’s true that African Americans were disgruntled with the Democratic Party because they felt we were ignoring them,” Mr. Dean said. “And one great way to make sure we don’t is to have [Republicans] come in and do this.”
One of the key issues Mr. Mehlman has raised at every turn is that seven black Republican candidates are running in statewide, city and county elections next year. Mr. Mehlman has told state RNC directors to actively recruit blacks to switch parties and run for office.
Mr. Mehlman said he does not foresee major dividends in the short term, but a key black Democrat said it could pay off sooner than he thinks.
“Democrats can not sit by idly while the GOP cherry-picks in the African American community,” said Donna Brazile, president of Brazile and Associates and chairwoman of the DNC Voting Rights Institute. “Unless the Democrats respond with its own initiatives, Ken and the GOP may reap a new harvest of traditional Democratic voters in 2006 and beyond.”
Mr. Mehlman recently apologized at the NAACP convention for his party’s successful use of the “Southern strategy” of targeting white voters uneasy with blacks’ progress. That strategy was devised in 1964 when Barry Goldwater, who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ran for president, and was continued under President Nixon. The Republican resurgence followed.
Black leaders said the apology was a step.
“Mehlman made an important move by showing up and apologizing,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “but it is about more than apologies, it is about policy.”
Mr. Dean questioned the apology, saying the “‘Southern strategy’ lives today” because Republicans are still trying to divide voters.
Miss Brazile and Mr. Bond said the president himself should be more of a presence and Republicans must find a way to show their conservative policies actually help black voters.
“It’s about public policy and the GOP’s major conservative initiatives — tax cuts, tort reform and other public policies — have not benefited blacks, who continue to have unemployment rates twice that of whites and others,” Miss Brazile said.
“So, Ken is opening a door, but the key to gaining entry is results. The record is still open, and Bush can spend the next three years making sure blacks see the ‘welcome’ sign on the door.”
Mr. Bond said despite black voters’ natural tendency toward conservatism on issues such as family, abortion and homosexual “marriage,” Democrats still have a trump card in their commitment to civil rights.