The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Carolina Republicans try — despite themselves — to win minority voters

In North Carolina, Republicans see a prime opportunity for a U.S. Senate win in November. So national and state party leaders, anxious to broaden the base, are again turning to African American voters. The latest effort is a North Carolina Black Advisory Board “to strengthen the party’s ties with diverse communities and expand engagement efforts across the state,” the Republican National Committee said in a statement Thursday.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said of the 11 board members, “Their knowledge and roots in black communities across the state will be invaluable as we share our message of empowerment and expanding access to the American Dream.”

They have their work cut out for them.

It’s true that the campaign of Senate candidate and state House speaker Thom Tillis has just about stopped explaining why he didn’t mean anything negative about African American and Hispanic voters when in 2012 he contrasted their growing numbers with the “traditional population of North Carolina and the United States” that “is more or less stable.” The news cycle has moved on. Still, the impression remains that his statement was not only questionable in its sentiment about minority populations that have been in North Carolina for generations, before and after emancipation, but was also, as The Washington Post reported, wrong on the numbers.

Now, a state party official has explained that her own statements defending Tillis, the GOP’s hope to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, were never meant to offend.

Last week, before the RNC announcement, Carolyn Justice, vice chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in an interview on “Charlotte Talks” on WFAE, the local NPR affiliate, that critics of the Tillis “traditional” voter comments were just misinterpreting what the man she called “the most non-prejudiced human I have met” said. In a tough Senate contest, “We’re going to go for every little thread we can pull?” she wondered.

Then she went on to give an example of how anyone’s words can be twisted. “I can tell you lots of things that Mr. Barber has said; if I look at it with a jaundiced eye, I can see communist behind every curtain.”

The Rev. William Barber II is the head of the state NAACP and leader of the “Moral Monday” demonstrations that since last year have been protesting conservative legislation — from voting laws to Medicaid funding to tax changes — enacted by the general assembly in Raleigh.

The introduction of Barber and communism into the conversation could seem loaded, considering that “communist” was part of the familiar rhetoric used to try to discredit activists in the civil rights movement, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Opponents said the fight for equality was a communist-inspired attempt to undermine democracy, capitalism and the American way of life, and civil rights workers were mere tools.

Justice insisted that that reference was not her intent when asked by She the People to clarify. “If I looked at some of the things that the Moral Monday folks are saying (represented by Rev. Barber), with a jaundiced eye, and didn’t know the folks involved in the General Assembly I might come away thinking that Republicans in the General Assembly are hard, uncaring, cruel people who are not concerned about poor people. As a former legislator who has served with many of these legislators and Thom Tillis, I know that is not true,” she said in an e-mail. “I was in no way going for the jugular in an effort to slander Rev. Barber, I was simply pointing out that each of us can say things that can be misinterpreted by the hearer.”

And the communist reference?

“Seeing ‘a communist behind every curtain’ comes from my age (68),” Justice wrote. “That was a popular saying during the McCarthy era. He was a congressman who was accusing everyone of being a communist. It is now used to describe, seeing hidden meaning in everything someone says or does. Your questioning me about that statement shows me that using statements in the hearing of folks in a different generation is not smart, since you would not know its historical context. This experience has taught me to avoid references that the younger generation might not understand. I certainly was not implying that Rev Barber is a communist.”

It’s not the first time language from the 1950s and ‘60s has echoed in North Carolina’s current political battles, whether or not the speaker meant to bring back those memories. Last year, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) labeled the protesters at the capital “outsiders,” recalling the charge by officials in the segregated South that black residents were content with social order until “outside agitators” stirred things up. In McCrory’s case, as well, rhetoric did not match the record, which showed that most of the close to 1,000 arrested during “Moral Mondays” lived in the state.

Last October, North Carolina Republicans had a similar good news-bad news week, when the RNC opened a state African American engagement office in Charlotte, with decorations, snacks and optimistic speeches on the same day GOP state officials filed to urge a federal court to dismiss two lawsuits challenging changes in North Carolina’s new voting restrictions, which opponents say disproportionately affect poor, young, elderly and minority voters. Lawsuits, including one brought by the U.S. Justice Department, continue.

Ada Fisher, a North Carolina Republican National Committeewoman, defended the voting law at that October reception, and said then that the Constitution says citizens have the right to vote and the bill ensured that. In Thursday’s announcement of the Black Advisory Board, of which she is a member, Fisher said, “An engagement strategy which is inclusive of age, gender, occupational considerations, regional diversity and county needs will help the RNC, the state party and other communities throughout the state significantly grow the party, win the future and better lead this state and nation.”

She the People talked with another member of the new advisory board at a rally for Greg Brannon, the unsuccessful tea party primary challenger to Tillis. Felice Pete, a nurse anesthetist from Raleigh, N.C., said then that the tea party’s “message of freedom” on issues such as jobs and school choice should resonate with everyone.

In North Carolina, where African American voters make up almost a quarter of registered voters, it makes sense that the Republican Party would try to spread its message, particularly before a midterm race that could tip the balance of the U.S. Senate. Perhaps black voters could be open to a checklist of conservative values.

However, those leading the effort might want to start with a chat with their own state party leaders asking them to stop trying to help.