Herman Cain returns to spotlight with American Black Conservatives group

Washington, the Hermanator is back.

Awwww shucky ducky.

Remember him?

Herman Cain steps up to microphones at the Willard hotel on Monday after a two-day meeting of a dozen black conservatives that he pulled together. Mr. 9-9-9 has come out of the meetings with a catchy name for his group. They are the ABCs — American Black Conservatives.

After surging to the front of the GOP primary field in 2011 — before flaming out amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations — Cain returned home to Georgia to his radio show, relatively forgotten. Standing before the mikes on Monday he seems to sense another moment in the blazing sun on what happens to be an overcast day in the nation’s capital — a moment not solely for himself but for an entire cadre of “like-minded Americans who happen to be black.”

The former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza acted as something of a godfather to the ABCs, including the famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has reaped his share of controversy of late for his remarks lumping together homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. The pair were joined by the founder of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, a former Ohio secretary of state, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary, a radio personality and a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., who has become a conservative activist.

Together, they are searching for solidarity at what appears to be a critical juncture for minorities in a Republican Party that has acknowledged it is too old and too white to keep pace with an increasingly diverse electorate. And Cain is putting himself out front. Again.

His news conference is held in a room named for progressive Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In attendance: three cameramen and three reporters, including one from the conservative publication NewsMax and another from CNN who is visibly disappointed when told that Carson had skipped the Monday event.

Beneath a gilded chandelier, Cain explains the rationale behind the ABCs.

“When black conservatives are attacked, they sometimes are more viciously attacked than white conservatives,” Cain says. “One of the themes of this meeting is: We will not be silenced; if anything, our voice collectively will be stronger.”

Carson, for one, hasn’t exactly been silent in recent weeks. Earlier this month, he gave as good as he got as part of a Fox News segment focused on black conservatives and during an appearance on a conservative talk radio show hosted by Mark Levin, where he called white liberal critics “the most racist people there are because they put you in a little category, a box: ‘You have to think this way, how could you dare come off the [liberal] plantation?’ ”

Mark Q. Sawyer, a professor of political science at UCLA has sparred with black conservatives on Fox News and interprets the “plantation” comments in a dramatically different way.

What black conservatives are really saying is that “you black people aren’t really smart enough to know what’s good for you,” he said. “Their argument is it isn’t that the current Republican Party needs to create policies that appeal to African Americans. It’s that black people really need to think harder about politics.”

At a fundraiser for his Carson Scholars Fund on Sunday afternoon, Carson deflected such criticism, saying, “If you’re black and conservative, you must be a hater.”

Sawyer sees more complexity. He put Cain and Carson in a line of black conservative thinkers dating back to Booker T. Washington, who was criticized for his conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach and was supported primarily by white industrialists. The audience for the ABCs isn’t much different, Sawyer argued.

“The people who buy their books, who clap for them the loudest, very few of them are black,” Sawyer said. “Not a single one of those people has any credibility beyond their personal stories or has really had a message that large groups of people in the African American community finds persuasive.”

Cain’s confab was also noticeable for the African American conservatives not in attendance: former congressman J.C. Watts, former Bush secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Republican Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.). Cain said the dozen people who came were those who were top-of-mind for him.

“There were one or two dozen others I could have asked,” Cain said. “I hope they’re not offended.”

Watts said he was invited and would have attended had it not been for a scheduling conflict. In a phone interview Monday, he said he was distressed about the state of black conservatives, whom he would like to see, along with others in the Republican Party, address a broad range of issues important to the African American community: development of low-income communities, minority health disparities, poverty and investment in historically black universities. Instead, attention has focused on the evocative language and aggressive tactics of black conservatives. (Much was written of Carson’s in-your-face excoriation of President Obama’s policies — as Obama sat nearby — at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year.)

“I have tried to stay away from that kind of thing,” Watts said. “I do think it matters how you say it, but in all fairness, you can point to language on the left that has been just as detrimental, that has poisoned the well.”

Watts said he found himself a player in that trap in 1997 when, in defending himself against criticism that he was a “sell-out,” he said some black Democrats were “race hustling poverty pimps.” He now regrets those words.

Sawyer said there is a real question of whether black conservatives, such as Cain and Carson, can gain any traction with black voters without developing policies of the sort suggested by Watts.

“The assumption has to be that black people just like to hear people like themselves talk, and they don’t really care about the substance,” Sawyer said. “That is a problematic stereotype of the same ilk as the ‘Marco Rubio is a [GOP] savior’ kind of idea. It isn’t just that Latino voters want to see a Latino. The substance matters to them. The policy matters them.”

Assistant Democratic House Leader James E. Clyburn (S.C.), whose father was a fundamentalist minister in South Carolina, said blacks have a long history with conservatism — and there is a role for black conservatives to play.

“My father was . . . by any definition of the word conservative, but by any definition of liberalism, he was very liberal,” Clyburn said. “I learned growing up that there’s a time to be conservative and a time to be liberal.”

Clyburn said he doesn’t see the same nuance among the most prominent black conservatives today.

Cain said his discussions with other ABC members — which were closed to the media — revolved around “mutual concerns and solutions” for the nation and the black community. In the public news conference, reporters pressed for detail.

“Stay tuned,” Cain said, stepping away from the mikes.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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