By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 7, 2005
ATLANTA -- Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stood before a roomful of black journalists last week fielding pointed questions about his party's mostly shaky relationship with black voters.
Asked about the southern strategy that used race as an issue to build GOP dominance in the once Democratic South, Mehlman acknowledged that Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions. But he pledged that such neglect is a thing of the past. "Our plan for 2006 and 2008 is to increase African American turnout," he said crisply.
Republican candidates who exploited racial resentments to solidify white support, he added, were simply wrong.
Unconvinced, one questioner asked whether President Bush was guilty of appealing to those very resentments when he appeared at South Carolina's Bob Jones University when his GOP primary campaign was listing in 2000, even though the fundamentalist Christian school banned interracial dating. Mehlman did not flinch -- but neither did he directly engage the question. Bush "has been a model" of how the GOP and blacks can "restore their historic bond," he said.
Distancing the party from its recent past and promising a more inclusive future has become a ritual for Mehlman since he became chairman of the GOP in January. It is part of an audacious bid to chip away at the Democratic Party's most loyal constituency: black voters.
The goal is to broaden the base of the Republican Party and forge a new GOP majority that can win elections well into the future. Even a relatively small shift in black voting patterns could boost Republicans and cripple Democrats for years, strategists on both sides say.
It is a vision pursued by previous Republican Party leaders, but with little success. Lee Atwater, who was RNC chairman in the late 1980s and early 1990s, once won appointment to the board of trustees of Howard University, but left after intense student protests.
Despite periodic Republican outreach efforts, nearly nine out of 10 blacks voted for Democratic presidential candidates over the past four decades.
But Bush's success in modestly increasing black support in battleground states such as Ohio with a culturally conservative message during the 2004 election caused some religious and cultural leaders to see an opportunity for the GOP to overcome its difficult history with black voters.
"I can't go to the party with Democrats right now because they are playing some strange music," said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., a registered Democrat and pastor of Hope Christian Church in College Park. Jackson said he opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Jackson, who was among more than 20 black religious leaders who met with Bush at the White House last month, said he left impressed with Bush's efforts to increase black homeownership, to extend more funding to faith-based social service agencies and to increase funding to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa.
"People who are skeptical about the Republicans don't realize the sincerity of their outreach effort," Jackson said.
Hip-hop mogul and political activist Russell Simmons met privately with Mehlman in June and said he found the RNC chairman's message compelling. "There are practical solutions to the poverty problem and education problem that sometimes come out of Republican thinking," Simmons said. "I don't have to agree with them on everything, but we have to be able to listen."
Still, the party is going to have to develop an agenda that speaks more directly to black interests to make significant inroads among black voters, some analysts say.
"For black voters it is about deliverables," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist. "They want results, and if Ken and the GOP can deliver jobs, economic development and access to a good education and health care, he will bring home more black voters."
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has questioned the sincerity of the GOP's outreach efforts. He accuses Republicans of working to suppress the black vote in 2004. Moreover, he said, the appeal to black voters is noteworthy only because it was so long in coming.
"It is unusual for the Republicans to come to the African American community and ask for the vote," he said. "It is not unusual for us."
Since conservative icon Barry M. Goldwater ran for president in 1964, Republican presidential candidates have, on average, captured less than 12 percent of the black vote, according to David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research organization.
The problem, Bositis said, is that Republicans often are perceived as hostile to the concerns of black voters, whether it is affirmative action, the stubbornly high black unemployment rate or better funding for urban schools.
Ed Gillespie, Mehlman's predecessor as RNC chairman, said the GOP is beginning to earn the faith of black voters by increasing funding for historically black colleges and backing proposals for private school vouchers. Also aiding the GOP cause is the prominence of high-ranking black officials, such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Claude A. Allen, Bush's top domestic policy adviser.
"The willingness to go after the black vote is the first big hurdle we had to overcome," Gillespie said. Now, he said, "there is a cultural barrier we have to overcome, in terms of the long-standing affiliation black voters have with the Democratic Party."
Bush's share of the black vote went from 8 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to exit polls. Despite the small increase, Bush doubled his share of the black vote in Ohio and Florida.
"There are some obvious signs that we are on the verge of a breakthrough when you look at what we have to do to be successful," said Michael Williams, a black Republican elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, a statewide energy board. "If we can just move to 20 or 25 percent of the African American vote, that is a cataclysmic change in vote count."
Seeking to build on successes in Ohio and Florida, Mehlman has intensified the recruitment of black candidates for statewide and national offices. The Rev. Keith Butler announced his candidacy against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Michael S. Steele, Maryland's lieutenant governor, is widely expected to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes (D), and former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann (R) is considering running for governor of Pennsylvania.
Since January, Mehlman has addressed 17 black groups. Almost always, his message is the same. In his session before the National Association of Black Journalists here, Mehlman enumerated some of the GOP's historical connections to blacks.
Republicans, not Democrats, are the party of Abraham Lincoln, he reminds audiences. It was Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, who invited black leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, enflaming racial passions coast to coast. Dwight D. Eisenhower, another Republican, sent federal troops into Little Rock to enforce school integration.
Often, Mehlman speaks in deeply personal terms. He told the black journalists that he views open housing, voting rights and civil rights bills passed in the 1960s as the most important laws of the 20th century. He also invoked his late grandfather, a Baltimore shopkeeper, who was a member of the NAACP.
He then went into his pitch, asking black voters to give the GOP another look: "The Republican Party will not be whole again until more African Americans come back home."