CHARLOTTE – The two groups that met this past weekend at the Charlotte Convention Center – on separate floors — were pretty easy to tell apart.
The guy with the Green Lantern symbol on his T-shirt and the woman with silver streaks in her hair were probably coming from the HeroesCon comics convention. The decidedly more button-down men and women upstairs were headed to the 2013 state convention of the North Carolina Republican Party. They could stop at a corridor display to enter the “AR-15 Bushmaster C15” raffle, with proceeds to benefit North Carolina Young Republicans, or guess when Attorney General Eric Holder, represented by image and imagined word bubble “will resign and/or be indicted.”
There were broader disconnects outside the building, as well, in the state of North Carolina. At the weekend convention, with national GOP stars, from former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, a Friday night speaker, and Karl Rove, who spoke at the Westin Hotel on Saturday, the energized crowd saw opportunity and a prime target for a Senate pickup in the 2014 reelection race of Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The mood was upbeat in a state that has taken a conservative lean since the 2012 election with GOP super-majorities in its House and Senate, and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a star at the convention, leading the way.
An obstacle to taking that Senate seat could be the increasingly diverse North Carolina electorate, which has been protesting the policies coming out of the capital of Raleigh in demonstrations and arrests, an effort led by state NAACP president, the Rev. William Barber. The protests the coalition calls Moral Mondays — fighting actions that range from the state’s decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid, and the reduction of state unemployment benefits to legislation that would tighten voter-ID requirements and repeal the state’s Racial Justice Act – are far more visible attempts than recent GOP initiatives, spotlighted at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Charlotte in January, to reach out to minority communities.
While it is a multiracial and diverse coalition taking a message to the general assembly each week, the policies, as well as the tactics that recall Martin Luther King-style civil-rights actions, resonate with minorities, setting up a clash that would seem to contradict a GOP push to broaden its electorate.
So where does that put the Republican’s Growth and Opportunity Project, RNC chair Reince Priebus’s listening tour and other efforts to engage those who have found little to like in the GOP message?
J.C. Watts, one of the stars the convention crowd came to hear and take pictures with on Friday night, talked about his own dissatisfaction with the general GOP effort. “The key is to put teeth in it and to be real about it,” he told me. “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Watts, a former Republican U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma and now a columnist and consultant based in Washington, D.C., continues to be a symbol and ambassador for African-American GOP success.
The one-time football star used an appropriate analogy. “After you lose the Super Bowl twice, in ’08 and 2012, people start Monday morning quarterbacking. … I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Jack Kemp and I said in the early ’90s when I first got into politics that we will become irrelevant eventually if we don’t do a better job.
“Now after we’ve got our heads handed to us constantly over the last two elections, now all of a sudden we’re saying, ‘hey you want to go to the movies with me, you want to go to happy hour with me’”?
Watts said that many black and Hispanic families are culturally conservative. “We understand family, we understand work, we understand sacrifice. … We want good schools for our kids, we want opportunity,” he said. “The black vote today is the most marginalized in America simply because the Democrats say we can treat them anyway we want to treat them, ‘just shut up and quit moaning … they’re going to be with us come hell or high water.’ The Republicans say we’ve got to win without them.”
He said that while many African Americans are not “enamored” with Democrats, “they just don’t trust us.” A Republican he said he gives credit to “for showing up” and speaking at historically black Howard University is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
At the Friday night convention reception, the words of an African-American couple reflected the caution in Watts’ words, as well as a split about who’s to blame for the disconnect. Elton Futrell, a district chair from Durham County, said it’s brainwashing and propaganda about the GOP from Democrats and the media that’s keeping minorities away, while his wife, Velma Futrell, a registered Democrat who said she “votes on issues,” advised more sensitivity from the GOP when it comes to considering the programs that provide for children, the disabled and the elderly. Investigate if there’s something wrong or needs fixing, she said, “before you cut it.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3