HOUSTON — Mitt Romney’s speech before the nation’s oldest civil rights organization Wednesday was meant as an olive branch to the black community, but his sharp criticisms of President Obama and a vow to repeal the Democrat’s healthcare plan drew sustained boos and a chilly reception from the audience of black voters.
Romney’s message was aimed at a larger audience beyond the Houston convention hall — independent and moderate voters particularly. But the tone of his speech still surprised many attendees at the annual convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, many of whom had praised him beforehand for making an appearance. As they left the hall, a number of voters said the former Massachusetts governor’s statements energized them to work for Obama’s reelection campaign this year.
Though Romney’s late father, George, was a forceful advocate for civil rights as governor of Michigan, Romney has campaigned in front of predominantly white audiences, with the exceptions of a visit to a West Philadelphia charter school and the occasional address to a Latino audience. The candidate and his campaign have acknowledged they have an uphill challenge in wooing black voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama’s candidacy in 2008.
The audience initially welcomed the unofficial Republican nominee with a standing ovation and applauded when he promised to represent “all Americans of every race, creed and sexual orientation,” and noted that “old inequities persist” even half a century after the civil rights movement.
But murmurs of disagreement rippled through the crowd early on when he argued that his policies would help “families of any color more than the policies and leadership of President Obama.” When he added that he would reduce spending, in part, by eliminating “nonessential, expensive programs” like the president’s healthcare plan, the audience booed for 15 seconds. And when Romney harshly criticized the president for failing to create jobs and “better educate tomorrow’s workers,” he appeared to have punctured much of the goodwill that was initially directed his way.
Romney stood quietly behind the lectern, smiling at the audience as it voiced disapproval. “I do not have a hidden agenda,” he continued. “If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him.” To a scattering of boos and catcalls, the candidate paused and nodded firmly before carrying on with his speech. “You take a look,” he said.
While a few audience members credited Romney for his bluntness, a number of them suggested that he intended to be provocative.
“He wasn’t speaking to us,” NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond said after Romney’s speech. “He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn’t made up its mind about him, and he’s saying, ‘Look at me; I’m OK. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don’t like, so I’m not afraid to stand up to them.’ … I think that’s what this is all about, and that’s the reason he came.”
Though Romney’s speech included many themes he touches on regularly, he tailored his message to the group by emphasizing, for example, that the unemployment rate among African Americans is 14.4%, well above the national rate of 8.2% in June.
He also focused on what he called “institutionalized inequality” in the U.S. education system and his plans to expand school choice — noting that while black children make up 17% of students, “they are 42% of the students in our worst-performing schools.” Romney pledged to tie federal school funding more directly to each student.
Alfred Poucette Jr., a retired bus mechanic from Lake Charles, La., said although he appreciated Romney’s focus on education, he was concerned that his plans would divert money from the nation’s public schools. He described Romney’s tone as “condescending,” saying, “I think he came here more to appease us.”
Debra Hutchinson, a state employee from Columbus, Ohio, said she was baffled that Romney did not seem to be there to win votes. “I think he should have stayed home,” she said.
“Instead of coming to tell me what he could do for me, he came to put my president down,” Hutchinson said. “I really wanted him to come and sell himself — maybe there is something that I don’t realize about him — but he didn’t improve anything. He made things worse.”
But Johnnie Crockett of Fort Worth, a youth advisor to the NAACP, said that although some of the things Romney said “were not in good taste,” she thought “he was really trying to reach everybody.”
“He shouldn’t pretend just for our organization,” she said. “He should be who he is.”
Tara Wall, a Romney advisor, said the speech was the beginning of “a conversation” and that there was “a lot more applause than there were boos.”
“They appreciate us for showing up,” she told reporters after the speech. “We understand that folks aren’t going to agree with us 100%.... But at the end of the day, I think that Gov. Romney’s message was bold. He said what needed to be said, and what he has always said.”
The president chose not to attend this year’s NAACP convention because of scheduling issues, White House aides said Wednesday. They noted that Obama spoke to the convention in 2009, and that his wife, Michelle, addressed the group in 2010. Vice President Joe Biden will address the association Thursday.
“His commitment to the organization and the broader community is easy to see,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said of the president. Carney also argued that Obama’s economic plans, including the push to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for income under $250,000 a year, are designed to help middle-class families and thus many African American households.
Despite the cool reception, Romney’s aides said he planned to continue pressing his case that his economic policies would do more to spur job growth in the black community. During an afternoon appearance with Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business Network, Romney said he had expected the crowd’s response to his plan to repeal Obama’s healthcare plan. “I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” he said.
Romney closed his speech in Houston by citing the example of his father — whom he called “a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God” — and promised, “We will know one another, and we will work to common purposes.”
“I will seek your counsel,” the former Massachusetts governor said. And if asked to return to next year’s convention, he added: “My answer will be yes.”
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.