Republicans Pin Hopes on Black Candidates

The Associated Press
Saturday, May 20, 2006; 11:57 PM

BOWIE, Md. -- Hope springs eternal when black Republicans seek higher office, yet often the first question that hits them is what are they doing in the GOP. This election year, a man named Steele in Maryland and a former football star named Swann in Pennsylvania are among a small but determined number of black candidates trying to win one for the Republicans despite the Democratic Party's near lock on the black vote.

Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a former seminarian with a law degree from Georgetown University, is seeking the open Senate seat in November. He is looking to translate one accomplishment _ the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland _ into another, as the only black Republican in the Senate.

Lynn Swann, a Hall of Famer with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, is running for governor in Pennsylvania.

Black Republicans also are seeking the governorship in Ohio, the Senate in Michigan and seats in Congress and state legislatures from the Midwest to the Deep South.

It's never easy.

"Sometimes you feel kind of out there on an island by yourself," said Eric Wallace, 47, an associate minister of a large black congregation in Chicago who is running for the state Senate in Illinois.

"Sometimes when I tell people I'm a Republican, they just automatically shut down and don't want to hear any more," Wallace said.

"But when I start talking about our views _ we're not for abortion, we're pretty much against same-sex marriage _ they start listening."

As Steele has discovered in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, getting on the ballot is only one step in an arduous journey.

In Prince George's County, which has the nation's most affluent majority-black population, barber Kevin Walker shrugged off the GOP effort to get voters like him to consider Republican candidates.

"I'm a Democrat. It was the way I was raised," said Walker, 21, who is black.

He was hardly impressed with Steele's stature as No. 2 official in Maryland since 2003, or the possibility that Steele could become only the second black sitting senator. Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois was elected in 2004.

Asked whether he would vote for Steele, Walker shook his head. "Doubt it," he said, and went back to trimming hair.

It is that chilly reception that Republicans are trying to change.

After decades of trying to sway black voters, targeting a growing black middle class and the social conservatism of many churchgoing blacks, the GOP has gotten only weak results.

In 2000, George W. Bush got 7 percent of the black vote in his successful presidential campaign. Four years later, 11 percent of black voters cast ballots for President Bush.

Since 2004, Republicans have recruited 10,000 black "team leaders" to spread the GOP message to their churches and communities. The party also put on its first-ever minority candidate training seminar this spring in Washington. This summer, the GOP will start an internship program to reach out to minority voters and recruit candidates.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans tapped Swann to challenge Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell. The 54-year-old former football standout has captured headlines but trails in the polls. Swann has ventured into poor black neighborhoods where GOP candidates have never visited and seen a willingness to consider Republican ideas.

"It's important for people to know that I'm not running for governor as a place-keeper for the Republican Party or to be a poster child for diversity," he said. "I'm running to win."

In other races:

_In Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a black GOP conservative, is running for governor. He alienated some blacks in the 2004 presidential election when he ordered that provisional ballots in Ohio be issued only to voters who went to their correct polling places. The decision was seen in some quarters as discouraging Democratic turnout.

On primary night this month in the state, Blackwell also came under criticism for issuing confusing orders on releasing election results.

_In Michigan, the Rev. Keith Butler is one of three Republicans who will face off in the Aug. 8 primary for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Butler racked up several endorsements and more than $1.4 million in cash before Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who is white, entered the race in October, stealing some of Butler's momentum. Polls show Stabenow comfortably leading all three in hypothetical matchups.

In Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, and the state has the largest percentage of black voters outside the South. Steele, 47, realizes that he has to explain himself when he seeks black votes.

"I grew up in a Democratic household," he told students at largely black Howard University in Washington. "My parents were Roosevelt Democrats, had been all their lives. My mom, when I told her I was a Republican, asked me, 'Why?' That was the extent of that conversation."

He told the students a study of the past led him to the party of Abraham Lincoln.

"I researched the history of both parties. And whether you like it or not _ whether you know it or not _ the political origins of the African-American community are with the Republican Party," Steele said.

Steele has one advantage in his Senate race _ no single Democratic opponent until September. Rep. Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, a former congressman and one-time president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are the leading Democrats in the Sept. 12 primary. The race is to fill the Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who is retiring.

Steele has the backing of the Republican establishment _ President Bush attended a Baltimore fundraiser earlier this year _ but his campaign has had its share of problems. In February, Steele apologized after comparing embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi medical experiments.

A tug-of-war between state and national Republicans resulted in the departure of his campaign manager and press secretary.

In a year of falling poll numbers for Bush and the GOP-led Congress, national Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman acknowledged black support is "not going to happen overnight." Amaya Smith, speaking for the Democratic National Committee, said the Bush administration's inept response to Hurricane Katrina has further complicated GOP efforts to court the black vote.

"It's traditionally been a loyal base for us, but we understand we can't reach out just a couple weeks before the election," she said. "We're doing outreach all the time."

The House has 42 black members _ 40 representatives and two delegates. All are Democrats.

In Maryland, Asa Lee, who is studying to become a Baptist minister, said black voters are willing to listen to Republicans as long as the party has something to offer besides black candidates.

"If they think that what they are doing is putting a face out there, that's not good enough," said Lee, 26. "It's not just a face. It's the issues."

Herman Cain, a black Republican who failed in a 2004 Senate bid in Georgia, wrote a book, "They Think You're Stupid," arguing blacks should not keep voting Democratic. He said it is more important for the GOP to connect with blacks on issues than on the race of candidates.

"They can't keep waiting for the Michael Steeles, the Lynn Swanns to draw people," said Cain, host of a radio talk show in Atlanta and former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza. "You've got to go to the black voters, to the black community and say, 'We are pro-life. We believe in the Second Amendment. We are fiscally responsible.' You can't keep waiting for black Republicans to reach in. You have to reach out."

In west Mississippi, Yvonne Brown is challenging an incumbent black Democrat in the 2nd Congressional District. She said minds do not change until people meet someone who is black and Republican.

"We know there are black Republicans, and we know Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were Republicans, but we don't see it," said Brown, 53, the mayor of Tchula, a town of about 2,300. "It's not immediately touchable.

"I'm out there. I'm touchable. It makes a difference."


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