MILWAUKEE — The Democratic and Republican Party chairmen both apologized yesterday for their parties’ failure to properly engage the black community, promising to address issues important to blacks at the NAACP’s 96th annual convention.
Howard Dean, Democratic National Committee chairman, said Democrats no longer can treat blacks as an afterthought.
He spoke immediately before Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman, apologized for his party’s ignoring blacks for the better part of 40 years.
“[T]he days of three white guys meeting in the back room and running the Democratic Party are gone,” said Mr. Dean, who accused President Bush of dividing Americans by race, wealth and sexual orientation.
“In 2002, it was African-Americans the president targeted when he used the word quota to defend his case against affirmative action at the University of Michigan; in 2004, it was gays and lesbians; and in 2006, you know who it will be, immigrants,” Mr. Dean said.
Mr. Mehlman said the Republican Party had good relations with the black community from President Lincoln until President Lyndon B. Johnson helped Democrats push civil rights legislation.
“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” Mr. Mehlman said. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
Both men praised the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for its work during the past 100 years and received applause and skeptical moans. Members smirked unapologetically when Mr. Dean promised that his party no longer would show up “six weeks before an election” asking for black voters’ support.
In Indianapolis yesterday, Mr. Bush, who for the fifth year skipped the NAACP convention, tried to woo blacks in a supportive crowd at the Indiana Black Expo.
Mr. Bush brought a message of opportunity for all Americans to own homes and businesses and to share in the nation’s prosperity. Noting figures released yesterday by the Education Department, he took credit for narrowing the gap in test scores between black and white elementary school students.
“I see an America where every citizen owns a stake in the future of our country and where a growing economy creates jobs and opportunity for everyone,” the president said, his voice echoing in the cavernous RCA Dome, where more than 3,000 people packed luncheon tables on the floor below empty stands.
In Milwaukee, it was clear that the president’s refusal to speak to the NAACP the past four years had put Mr. Mehlman at a disadvantage.
The RNC chairman received marked applause when he discussed some of Mr. Bush’s policies, particularly the minority homeownership rate, which is the highest in history at 60 percent.
“I think both men represented their parties effectively, but I felt that Mr. Dean addressed our issues better,” said B. Elaine Farrior, NAACP youth council adviser in Duplin County, N.C.
She said Mr. Mehlman seemed sincere in his personal convictions to change the culture of “speaking with one hand in front of you and keeping the other behind your back,” but that did not apply to the party at large.
The NAACP has given the appearance that it is politically tied to the Democratic Party. Chairman Julian Bond’s visceral speeches have attacked Republicans, and the Internal Revenue Service has investigated the organization for being partisan, threatening its tax-exempt status.
Jeff L. Greenup, a Republican and member of the NAACP since 1932, said, “The NAACP is not monolithic. A lot of people think that, but it’s not true. There are quite a few of us that are cognizant of the history and sticking with the party that gave us a chance to begin with.”