Tour of Oakland Takes GOP Leaders to Political Terra Incognita


The big bus lumbered across this struggling blue-collar city, packed with political interlopers who admitted they were on foreign soil.

Here in a largely African American bastion of Democratic ideals, state Republican leaders came calling Friday in an effort to show their conservative flag, scout for new voters and try to gauge just how the other half lives.

At the urging of Shannon Reeves, secretary of the state Republican Party and a national leader for the National Assn. for Advancement of Colored People, the businessmen and party activists converged on Oakland for a meeting that included a brief bus ride around the rebuilding city.

Organizers called the tour "Republicans in the Hood."

The GOP's 20-member elected board of directors meets every few months, this time choosing Alameda County--where representatives in the state Assembly, as well as the U.S. Congress, are all Democrats. Only one Republican sits on the Oakland City Council.

So was this a bunch of wine-drinkers let loose in brewery land? The blue-chip boardroom invading the break room?

Sheldon Sloan didn't think so.

"Democratic stronghold one day and a Republican stronghold the next," said the Los Angeles attorney and GOP fund-raiser. "In this country, political winds blow every which way."

Some Oakland residents agreed.

"Black voters here are like a jilted bride, waiting to be courted," said Robert Oliver, an African American policeman on the board. "There's been a lot of broken Democratic promises made."

In the 1999 state Assembly race, Green Party candidate Audie Bock beat out former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, one of the best-known Democrats in the Bay Area, in what was described as a Democratic backlash.

Indeed, Republican strategists see Oakland as one of California's next political battlegrounds. In 1996, only 10% of Oakland's black voters considered themselves Republicans, they say. And though that number has risen, party leaders are keying on what they consider an even more critical factor: A great number of blacks consider themselves conservative.

"Largely black cities like Oakland are fertile grounds for ideas; now we need to make them fertile ground for Republican candidates," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the San Diego Republican Committee.

Shaking his head over how Republicans recently lost their majority vote on the San Diego City Council, he added: "Hey, this party is not going to concede any bloc or neighborhood in California. We can't afford to."

The 90-minute tour took the out-of-towners to such developing areas as Jack London Square, Oakland's Chinatown and scenic Lake Merritt. They also cruised through decidedly less-safe East Oakland, where more than half the city's 40 homicides were committed last year.

Tour members seemed unfazed.

"I'm comfortable here," Sloan, who is white, said before the bus tour. "You can get mugged anywhere. My philosophy is that people who get mugged are looking to get mugged--by doing stupid things."

Added Republican Party board member Bruce Bialosky, who is also white: "I'm always comfortable in any environment with African Americans."

Like others, Sloan said the GOP was changing. "The old days of white males running the world are over," he said. "Hey, I'm a Jew. Forty years ago, Jews weren't allowed into the Republican Party. But that's not true anymore."

Trice Harvey, an ex-state legislator from Kern County, among the state's most-conservative areas, said the organizing task in Oakland was daunting.

"We have to show the flag," said Harvey, the son of an Arkansas sharecropper.

"But Republicans are used to walking in poor areas," he said. "The Democrats write us all off as having silver spoons in our mouths. But nobody--even people here--grew up poorer than me."

As it moved down MacArthur Boulevard, the bus turned silent.

"Democrats have controlled this area for years, and the boarded-up buildings are still boarded up," Reeves told his audience.

"As Republicans, you've just got to show people you care about their plight, that you're willing to come out here and meet them and tell them you're not afraid."

Oakland resident Clifford Terrell said the Republicans are wasting their breath.

"I go to a Baptist church, root for the American League," said the 74-year-old African American. "And no Republican on this Earth is going to change the way I vote."

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