GOP Courting Black Vote

Leading Republicans are trying to cultivate warmer relations with blacks, seizing on President Bush's pledge to reach out to a group that votes overwhelmingly Democratic.

As part of that effort, the president and top GOP lawmakers have met recently with minority entrepreneurs, black college presidents and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

A major aim is avoiding a repeat of the dismal numbers from the November elections. Blacks voted against Bush by a 9-1 margin — the widest since Barry Goldwater ran in 1964, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank.

Political observers say the high turnout among blacks and union members helped Democrats pull into a 50-50 tie in the Senate.

``There was a stunningly intense anti-Republican campaign from the left and a remarkably weak campaign from Republicans in the African-American community,'' former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

``By the end of October, the community had consolidated in its belief that the only safe vote was for (former Vice President Al) Gore,'' Gingrich said. ``If we don't honor the black community enough to be in the community defending ourselves, then why shouldn't they believe these kinds of attacks?''

It is a concern being expressed by many Republicans. Recently, for example, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma joined a small group of minority entrepreneurs to celebrate Black History Month and discuss ways to spur business creation.

``I don't get invited to too many events of this nature,'' Lott told the gathering. ``I'm glad to be here.''

``I want more African-Americans ... not to have a job but have a business,'' Lott told the entrepreneurs, most of whom were black. ``I want to talk about things that really unite us.''

Lott made references to well-known blacks such as singer Charlie Pride and the late football star Walter Payton, and said he was considering proposing a monument to honor black contributions to the nation.

Allard, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, briefed the group on tax cuts Republicans are pushing. ``Keep us informed of what your issues are,'' he said.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, was skeptical of the Republican outreach.

``We are looking for issues to be addressed,'' she said. ``Monuments are wonderful, but we want something done about living people and rights that seem to be crumbling before our eyes. We know the difference between symbolism and respect.''

The efforts on Capitol Hill stem in no small part from Bush's pledge, during the campaign and since, to bring more blacks into the GOP.

To wit, the president has:

—Met with black congressional members recently to hear their grievances, including continued frustration over the Florida election recount.

—Said he is looking at ways to address the issue of racial profiling, a practice by police of considering a person's race or ethnicity in detaining suspects or making traffic stops.

—Appointed several blacks to top jobs, including Colin Powell as secretary of state, Rod Paige as secretary of education and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser.

``It's critical for all to understand that President Bush and Republicans in Congress have an inclusive vision to lift up every American,'' said Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only black Republican in Congress and a member of the party leadership.

He cited plans to lead a delegation to Africa to look at ways of expanding trade as well as meet with ministers to discuss ways government and religious organizations can work together.

Despite these efforts, obstacles remain.

This was typified last week in comments by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Julian Bond, board chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Armey decried what he said was a common practice among some in the black community: seeking to make political gains by labeling Republicans as racists.

``This practice will continue to divide our nation, polarize our political parties and do untold harm in the lives of real people who are unjustly accused of conspiracy against the civil rights of African Americans,'' Armey wrote.

Bond retorted: ``This is a typical complaint of those who oppose justice and fairness and who accuse those of us who insist on fairness of this tactic.''

Lott conceded that Republicans still are troubled by the overwhelming margin by which blacks supported Democrats in last year's elections.

``George W. Bush wound up not getting much minority vote,'' the Senate leader said. ``I know he's not happy with that. I predict as a result of his efforts, the next time he's up (for re-election) you're going to see that number explode.''

Lott said he understands blacks' anxiety about Republican control of the government.

``I think the proof is in the pudding,'' he told The Associated Press. It's up to Republicans to ``reach out, show we really care. I think that is the key.''

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