President Bush may yet go down as the first modern president to shun the NAACP during his term, but that hasn’t kept the Republican Party from pushing for inroads with black voters.
The Republican National Committee has been making a very public effort to reach out to African Americans, who have for decades voted staunchly Democratic. In July, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman spoke at the NAACP’s annual convention, repudiating his party’s long-standing strategy of using divisive racial politics to solidify the white Southern vote. The linchpin of Mehlman’s outreach strategy has been a series of meetings and ongoing dialogues with influential blacks, from clergy to entrepreneurs to ubiquitous boxing promoter Don King.
Republican staffers say Mehlman’s work reflects a growing diversity in the party’s rank and file, which was evident in the 2004 presidential election when Bush’s share of the black vote rose to 11% from 9% in 2000.
Mehlman suggests that some African Americans will view the Republican Party as having taken more action than the Democrats on issues such as black homeownership, which has increased since Bush took office. “I think what folks are going to look to is [our] plan to close the gap in retirement funds, increase homeownership, and do a number of things. I view success as building a long-term, sustained effort, and it will be measured by things like 2.3 million new minority homeowners since 2002.”
But Ron Walters, a political scholar, professor, and author, questions the sincerity of the Republicans’ outreach.
“You’ve got to ask at the end of the day, ‘Where is the Republican Party with respect to the black public policy agenda?’ Insofar as the Republicans have not answered that satisfactorily, the response of the black community has been minimal,” Walters says.
He credits the Bush administration with increasing aid to Africa and with pledging to help bring homeownership to 50% of black households. But Walters, who has advised several Democratic presidential candidates, cautions that Mehlman might only be trying to split the black vote by luring enough black votes away from Democratic candidates to help edge more Republicans into office.
Still, at least one black clergyman says that African Americans can’t afford to be on the outs with the party wielding the most political power, even if meeting with the Republicans could be a dangerous political misstep.
Bishop Harry Jackson, a registered Democrat and self-described conservative evangelical Christian, says he is meeting with Mehlman because many other prominent African Americans have shunned the Republican Party, even as it exercises considerable control over the federal legislature.
“Many of our established civil rights leaders have polarized themselves from President Bush, and the man is going to be in office for the next three years,” says Jackson, who is an author, TV host, and pastor of the Hope Christian Church in Lanham, Maryland. “The needs of the African American community are too urgent,” to not have a relationship with the Republicans.
Mehlman’s conversations with black leaders gained attention earlier this year with a much-publicized meeting with Russell Simmons. The millionaire hip-hop impresario