Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman went to Harrisburg, Pa., last week to raise money for a city councilman’s re-election campaign — an event he believes could help change the face of American politics for years to come.

Mr. Mehlman’s trip to the Pennsylvania state capital was largely overlooked by the news media, but not by savvy Democratic strategists, who saw the trip as having the potential seeds of their party’s decline.

The GOP chairman rarely, if ever, attends fund-raisers for local elected officials this far down the political totem pole, but this event was an unusual case that sent new fears rippling through Democratic ranks.

The candidate is Otto Banks, a 33-year-old African-American and the biggest vote-getter in Harrisburg, a predominantly black and overwhelmingly Democratic city where a Republican hasn’t been elected to the city council in nearly 20 years.

Like everyone else on the all-black city council, Mr. Banks was a Democrat — that is, until this March when he announced he had become disenchanted and was joining the Republicans.

But there was much more going on here than just another local official making a party switch. Mr. Banks, an articulate Pennsylvania State University graduate, is a political star whose desertion was supported by some other city council Democrats.

Two of Mr. Banks’ council colleagues stood with him when he held a news conference to announce his switch. Their unspoken message: We’re not ready to join him, but we support what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

Since January, Mr. Mehlman has been on a whirlwind crusade to reach out to black voters — speaking to their communities, schools, colleges and business organizations. So when he heard Mr. Banks was thinking of jumping ship, he invited him to Washington and pledged to help any way he could.

“I told him I would go up to Harrisburg and help him raise money for his campaign,” Mr. Mehlman told me. “This is a priority of mine, to bring more African-Americans into the party of Lincoln.”

Last Friday’s breakfast fund-raiser was not your typical all-white, country club Republican event. The crowd of 60 or so, who contributed $22,000 to Mr. Banks’ campaign, included many of Mr. Banks’ black supporters, including prominent clergymen and businesspeople.

“It was a very racially diverse group of people, about half white and half African-American,” said Josh White, the state GOP’s communications director, who helped promote the event.

Mr. Banks wasn’t well-known outside of Harrisburg, but his decision and the political attention it received has since boosted him into the limelight. Suddenly, he was doing radio talk shows around the state. He was invited to speak at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

“There’s been a huge ripple” in the Democratic Party as a result of his switch, Mr. Banks told me. The reaction has been particularly favorable within his community. “More and more people of color are starting to take a second look at the Republican Party.”

Mr. Banks, who now calls himself a “progressive Republican,” voted for John Kerry in 2004, but after the campaign “took some time off and really started to do some soul-searching. I realized that many of the ownership and economic opportunity issues I stood behind were actually part of the president’s program.”

He is, for example, for school choice programs. He likes the idea of workers investing some payroll contributions and building a nest egg they can own and leave to their families.

Most troubling, he said, is how Democrats have treated their party’s most loyal constituency. “The Democrats have definitely taken their African-American base for granted,” he said. “We have lost our influence in the Democratic Party and by losing that, we have lost our ability to influence policies in our community.”

In a March column, I reported veteran campaign strategist Donna Brazile was warning fellow Democrats Mr. Mehlman’s campaign to court black voters “should be cause for alarm” in the party. But last week, after hearing of Mr. Mehlman’s fund-raiser for Mr. Banks, she said the erosion in the party’s black base was worsening. “I thought that by now Ken would run out of gas [with his black outreach efforts], but it’s clear to me that he is serious. He is trying to convert elected officials.

“This is another sign that Republicans this time around will not ignore the African-American community,” she told me.

When I put in a call last week to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to get some reaction about all this, a party official asked me, “Why are you spending time on a city councilman’s race?”

But there’s something more strategic going on here than just one very popular at-large city councilman. This is also about Mr. Banks’ considerable black constituency, who appear ready, for the first time in two decades, to pull the GOP lever to give him a second term in November.

That has political realignment written all over it, which makes for a story definitely worth watching.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide