Republicans Weighing Best Way to Reach Out to Blacks : Politics: Some believe the GOP message will resonate with African Americans. Others say agenda must change.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before folks started line-dancing to country and western tunes, no one would have confused the Republican National Committee's recent Las Vegas hoedown with the "Million Man March."

And even in his cowboy hat, James L. Flournoy stuck out at the GOP affair like Charlie Pride at the Grand Ole Opry.

Yet the Riverside attorney--one of a handful of African Americans in the huge ballroom--not only felt at home, he saw an ideological link between the Republican Western Leadership Conference and the controversial march on Washington. So the next day Flournoy, 79, stood up after Newt Gingrich's closing talk and addressed the House speaker.

The "Million Man March," Flournoy said, seemed to reflect the GOP's core values: personal responsibility, concern for family, economic self-determination.

Why, he asked, wasn't the party capitalizing on those shared concerns?

Gingrich's response--that the party must "reach beyond . . . the assumption that Republicans and African Americans can't work together"--echoed a refrain heard often at GOP events this campaign season. The Republican Party, it is said, should once again become "the big tent" that welcomes a diversity of constituents, including African Americans.

There are signs of political restlessness among African American voters. A Times Poll this fall, for instance, revealed that the number of African Americans calling themselves Democrats dropped to 58%, down from 74% in 1992. Also, almost 40% of those blacks surveyed expressed a willingness to consider a minor-party candidate.

Still, the poll found that Republican Party affiliation among blacks remains politically insignificant--9%. And even many blacks who see themselves as conservative recoil at what they perceive as the GOP's indifference, if not antipathy, to their concerns--one reason why virtually all majority-black congressional districts remain overwhelmingly Democratic.

"African Americans will never be fresh meat to the Republican Party," said Ron Walters, the head of Howard University's political science department.

Strategy Debate

But among GOP leaders, the debate continues: Should reeling in more black voters be a priority and, if so, how might it be achieved?

In announcing that he would not run for president, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell formally declared himself a Republican and vowed to woo African Americans by bringing the party back in line with "the spirit of Lincoln."

GOP activist Jack Kemp has also urged his party to embrace blacks--"that stray, lonely, lost lamb who has been left out of our coalition."

Some say that will happen only when the party backs away from issues such as dismantling affirmative action programs and banishes the sort of rhetoric Gingrich used last month in blaming welfare for a grisly Illinois murder case.

Others say any retreat from unvarnished conservatism is unnecessary and would amount to "pandering"--a charge they routinely level against Democrats.

GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour offers up poll figures showing that 25% to 45% of black voters call themselves "conservative." The key to getting their votes, he says, is not to "water down" the message, but to stress "why our policy of smaller government, less spending, genuine welfare reform, education reform and tough criminal-justice policies are in the best interests of African American voters."

That message is being spread more widely, as conservative black commentators such as the Hoover Institute's Thomas Sowell and KABC radio's Larry Elder increase their reach. And Republicans point to the rising profiles of some blacks within the party as evidence that the message is taking hold.

Long before Powell decided against seeking the presidential nomination, for instance, two other African Americans had already entered the race. Neither former State Department official Alan Keyes nor retired federal civil rights commissioner Arthur Fletcher is given any chance of winning--indeed, Fletcher has done virtually no campaigning--but their willingness to jump into the fray is offered as evidence that the party has expanded its appeal.

GOP literature also trumpets the fact that Colorado's new secretary of state and Ohio's new state treasurer are black Republicans. And party boosters note that almost twice as many black Republicans--27--ran for congressional seats in 1994 as in 1992.

But that statistic also reveals a problem for the party.

Only two of those candidates won--Reps. Gary Franks of Connecticut and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma--and they were elected in predominantly white districts, which supports the prevailing wisdom that conservative black candidates don't appeal to blacks.

Watts, once the University of Oklahoma's star quarterback, says that he regularly confronts all-black audiences with his no-holds-barred conservative speeches.

"I get standing ovations, tremendous response," he said. "But it never fails that someone will come up to me afterward and say: 'I agree with everything you said, but there's something about me and the Republican Party that just doesn't connect.' "

Past Ties

Watts and other black Republicans are quick to remind such people that it was the Democratic Party that fought the abolition of slavery, promoted Jim Crow laws in the South and held the loyalty of such symbols of racism as George Wallace and Bull Connor.

Indeed, until the last 50 years or so, blacks voted overwhelmingly for the party that freed the slaves, framed Reconstruction, and gave Congress its first dozen black congressmen--the GOP.

Blacks' abandonment of the party began in earnest during the Depression, when they, like other impoverished voters, reached out for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's economic lifelines. But the drift to the Democrats was gradual. As late as 1956, 40% of black voters backed Dwight D. Eisenhower for the presidency.

In 1964, though, more than 90% of black voters voted for Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater, whose platform stressed "states rights," which in the South was the phrase used to justify segregation laws. The mass exodus was cemented in 1968, says USC political science professor Michael B. Preston, when Richard Nixon embraced his "Southern strategy" of winning conservative white Democrats with talk of "law and order" and crackdowns on welfare.

By 1992, President George Bush could only draw 11% of the black vote. Tapping into the loyalty Democratic presidential candidates have come to expect from blacks, Bill Clinton captured 82% of their support, according to GOP figures.

Stumbling Blocks

Critics contend that the GOP cannot hope to attract more blacks so long as some conservative thinkers keep discounting the continuing impact of racism. In his recent work, "The End of Racism," for instance, Dinesh D'Souza, who was born in India, postulates that pathological behavior, rather than racism, is at the root of most black agony in America and has led to a "civilizational crisis" from which African Americans must extricate themselves.

D'Souza's provocations, including his idea that slavery wasn't as bad as most historians portray it, led two prominent black conservatives to quit their posts at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, where D'Souza is a fellow.

Liberals have called the GOP to task for failing to flatly renounce D'Souza's extreme ideology. Republicans counter that the GOP never embraced it to begin with.

Which is not to say there is not raucous debate on controversial matters among black Republicans.

Keyes, for instance, has made his anti-abortion stand the centerpiece of a family-values platform, while Fletcher's apparently symbolic campaign sees focusing on such issues as the worst thing Republicans could do.

"After the 'Million Man March,' which was all about economic development, the first thing [the GOP] should have done was call together African Americans and others and say: 'Let's have a summit on depressed neighborhood economic development.' "

Instead, says Fletcher, GOP leaders began pontificating on "the sociology" of welfare mothers and crime.

Then there are commentators like KABC's Elder, who says: "I don't want to hear all that family-values crap," but also rejects affirmative action preferences, which Fletcher sees as key to economic progress.

An independent who supports Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Elder says he is convinced that the GOP's conservative economic policies would be good for the African American community.

But he expresses doubts the community will embrace the GOP because "the bulk of black people remain convinced that racism is the major problem in America . . . and that colors their ability to see the need for lower taxes, their ability to look [critically] at welfare."

Conservative radio and TV commentator Tony Brown, like some others, sees the "Million Man March" opening a door for rapport between his fellow blacks and the Republican Party. And he predicts that more and more black voters will use that door to exit what he terms the "liberal plantation" of Democratic politics.

Many of those who do will become independents or align with a minor party, Brown argues in his new book, "White Lies, Black Lies." But if Republicans make a serious effort, Brown says, they can possibly draw twice as many black votes as they did in 1992. And they'd better, he says, because the nine states controlling the vast majority of the nation's electoral votes have large black populations.

Doubtful Pundits

Still, most black pundits scoff at the notion of a mass black migration back to the GOP.

Walters of Howard University says there is so much "racial venom" in the Republican agenda that most black voters will continue to reject the party.

USC's Preston contends that the GOP's real goal in talking up "inclusion" is to "hang onto those [white] moderates who may think the party is getting too mean, too hard-edged." He dismisses Barbour's pledge to double the number of GOP black voters in 1996 as "a bunch of baloney."

Even some black GOP partisans are hard-pressed to challenge that assessment.

"It would be so refreshing to see [GOP presidential candidates] actively campaign in black middle-class neighborhoods such as Baldwin Hills or Ladera Heights," said Deroy Murdock, a member of the black conservative group Minority Mainstream.

"There would be no need," he said, "to tailor or tinker with the message, to 'black up' the message at all."

But Murdock, who backs Steve Forbes in the GOP presidential race, says he is well aware "that there may be an underlying fear that somehow that's going to scare white voters."

"It confuses me when I hear Republicans say: 'How come black people never vote for us?' Well," Murdock added, "step up to the plate and compete! . . . You can't expect black folks to come tumbling out of the clouds like magic."

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