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It's My Party, But I Don't Feel Part of It

By Sophia A. Nelson
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Election night was a bittersweet night for me. Like most Americans, and especially as an African American, I found it deeply moving to watch President-elect Barack Obama and his family -- soon to be our nation's first African American first family -- stride onstage for his victory speech. I welcome the positive role models they'll present to black families and the American public at large.

But as a black Republican, I was chagrined that the political party I've belonged to for 20 years had just suffered a blistering electoral defeat. And that along the way, it had lost 96 percent of the black vote and 67 percent of the Hispanic vote -- the worst showing for the Republican Party among minorities in its 150-year history.

After such a devastating loss, Republicans will have to do some retooling. We'll have to decide whether we want to be the party that believes in smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation, or whether we're going to be a litmus-test party that responds only to the demands of social conservatives. But most important, we'll have to confront our most disastrous modern legacy: our poor relationship with black Americans, the very people the party was formed to protect from the expansion of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska in 1854.

That relationship may be lost for generations, thanks to a campaign by Sen. John McCain that seemed to simply concede the black vote. According to one senior aide, McCain had been polling close to 20 percent of the black vote before the primaries ended. But then his "Forgotten America" tour, which started soon after, never seemed to go anywhere. I knew of only one high-level black adviser or spokesperson on his full-time paid campaign staff. The GOP convention was embarrassingly devoid of people of color -- among more than 2,000 delegates, only 36 were black.

The problem, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele told the Washington Times last week, is that party officials "don't give a damn." To them, he said, "outreach means let's throw a cocktail party, find some black folks and Hispanics and women, wrap our arms around them -- 'See, look at us.' And then we go back to the same old, same old."

"The party has simply not understood the importance of having highly visible black Republican operatives, elected officials and political spokespersons working for it on an ongoing basis," adds an African American who worked for the Republican National Committee during the administration of the first President Bush. "It's not our message as much as it is our messengers that are killing us."

It didn't have to be this way. Only a few years ago, then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman was aggressively reaching out to the black community. At the NAACP convention in 2005, he apologized for the party's past embrace of racial polarization to gain political advantage. "We were wrong," he said. But Mehlman's efforts, like those of George H.W. Bush and President Gerald R. Ford in the 1970s and, ironically, Lee Atwater in 1989, have never really been followed up on in a way that has successfully made inroads and attracted black voters to the GOP fold.

I'm a Republican because I believe in a republican form of government, in individual liberty, the rule of law and civic virtue. Though I was raised in a staunchly Democratic household in a heavily ethnic suburb in southern New Jersey, I realized in college that my personal values were closer to those of the GOP than the Democrats. I joined the Republican Party in 1988, attracted by George H.W. Bush's message of a "kinder, gentler" America and Jack Kemp's mantra of economic development and urban enterprise zones, which seemed a natural fit for the black community.

That drew in other African Americans as well. "What the GOP of the '80s and '90s stood for was growth, opportunity and prosperity," one black Republican businessman from Virginia told me. "This is what attracted me to the party." But more recently that message, he said, "has gotten swallowed up by a social conservative agenda that seems obsessed with religion, guns and abortion."

I can vouch that being a moderate black Republican isn't easy. My black GOP colleagues and I endure endless ridicule and questioning from other African Americans, including close friends and family members who wonder how we can belong to a political party that is so overwhelmingly white, male, Southern, conservative and seemingly closed to ethnic minorities.

And truth be told, it's sometimes an ill fit. Consider the comments of Shannon Reeves, an African American who started a college Republican chapter at Grambling State University in 1988. In 2003, he wrote an open letter to the party after it was disclosed that in 1999, a newsletter published by the then-vice chairman of the California Republican Party had carried an essay suggesting that the country would have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.

"I am tired of being embarrassed by elected Republican officials who have no sensitivity for issues that alienate whole segments of our population," Reeves wrote. "This embarrassment is different for a black Republican. Not only do we have to sit in rooms and behave professionally towards Republicans who share this ideology, we have to go home to a hostile environment where we are called Uncle Tom and maligned as a sell-out to the community because of our membership in the Republican Party."

With those words Reeves expressed what many of us have felt over the years -- and felt again during the recent campaign as we listened to racially coded Republican ads and speeches aimed at scaring working-class and rural white voters about Obama. Reeves expressed why so many of us, including me, ended up, after struggling with our consciences, supporting and voting for the Illinois senator.

After losing our votes this time around, the question is whether the GOP will learn from its failings or continue to compound them. Rumor and e-mail has it that some black conservatives are angry with black Republicans such as Gen. Colin Powell who publicly backed Obama and have issued calls to "throw out" those who did so. But instead of doling out retribution, the party would be better off reflecting on its failings vis-a-vis African Americans, and on the transformation of Abraham Lincoln's Grand Old Party from one that freed the slaves, stood with the suffragists in the early 20th century and helped pass both the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts when Southern Democrats would not yield to a party that now appeals to the old Confederacy and a few mountain states out West.

How can the GOP bring black voters back into the fold? Asked that question on National Public Radio in October, Steele, now a candidate for the RNC chairmanship, offered a simple formula:

"Talk to them. Actually engage the black community where they are. Stop thinking you're going to get by by having a handshake and a photo-op, and actually go and listen to black folks in the issues and the concerns they have and . . . make them important to the [party's] overall strategy."

Reeves, who's now national director of state and local development for the RNC, has a similar view. The party, he said, has to "identify, elevate and support blacks who currently work within the party at the local level long before Election Day. We must embrace the talent that the party has now, those who have earned their stripes."

But black Republicans, he stressed, "have a responsibility, too. We need to be effecting change in our own local communities. We need to run for local and state party chairmanships, we need to be there when the platforms are being decided, and when candidates are being selected to run for office."

There are other steps the party can take as it regroups for the future. Republicans need to go to black churches, colleges and other organizations to make the case for the party as a viable option for African Americans. It should mentor and nurture young black Republicans on college campuses, teaching them to canvass, providing paid internships and encouraging them to attend party rules and platform meetings, where real political power resides. It should introduce elected black state and local officials to the national donor base to help them build their coffers for future elections. It should recruit blacks in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic and in urban districts, offering a Marshall Plan of sorts to rebuild our cities, encourage entrepreneurship and small business start-ups and promote lower taxes for job creation.

And the party can make better use of black veterans of past administrations, just as it does of white Republicans who get recycled and advanced in each new administration -- people like former Pennsylvania Republican committee deputy chairman Renee Amoore; former Atwater aide and George H.W. Bush appointee David Byrd; former George W. Bush appointee Clarence Carter; Sam Cornelius, former chairman of the National Black Republican Council; Thelma Duggin, former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan; and former George H.W. Bush aide Joe Watkins.

Diversity is a good thing. Republicans have to stop allowing ourselves to be accused of voter suppression in every campaign. And let's grow the vote in nontraditional areas the same way Obama did in rural and suburban white America.

In the final analysis, what the American people showed in this election is that they're looking for a more thoughtful and soulful politics. The Republican Party has to find its soul again. Only then will it be ready to lead and govern in a way that attracts a broad spectrum of people to it and makes them want to stay with it for generations to come.

sanelson@politicalintersection.com

Sophia A. Nelson, a former Republican congressional staffer and committee counsel, is a lawyer and the editor of politicalintersectionblog.com.

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