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Black Staff Aim To Help the GOP

As Congressional GOP leaders try to follow through on a promise to diversify their staffs, a group of about 65 black Republican aides is vowing to help increase political outreach for the party.

The aides are members of The Association of African-American Republican Congressional Staff, an organization formed one year ago to serve as a resource center for black GOP staffers.

While it has existed in relative obscurity since its formal founding in February 2002, the group is hoping to play a more visible role in helping Republicans appeal to black voters in the 2004 elections.

“Our mission has always been and will continue to be to reach out to nonconservative constituencies through our work on Capitol Hill,” said Robert Traynham, deputy staff director and communications director for the Senate Republican Conference, who is a co-founder of the staff association.

Off the Hill, Traynham said GOP staffers will serve as surrogate speakers at events organized by black organizations that “have traditionally not been friendly to conservatives, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Negro College Fund.”

On the Hill, the association will act as a resource center for GOP Members seeking advice and guidance on policy issues.

“We are already a resource in the various offices we [work] in,” said Marcus Ward, a legislative aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a staffer who serves as chairman of the group. “What we are trying to do is have a one-stop shop where you can call on the chair of the organization and say, ‘What does your group say about this?’”

Since December, Republicans have been trying to repair ties with the black community after Lott appeared to praise retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 segregationist presidential platform in remarks he made at the South Carolinian’s 100th birthday party.

Lott denied his remarks were meant to be racist, but unyielding pressure forced the Mississippi Senator to relinquish his post as Republican leader a few weeks after Thurmond’s birthday party.

Ward, who served as Lott’s special assistant in the leader’s office at the time, said he was present when Lott was roasting Thurmond and he thinks that some people twisted the Senator’s remarks.

“I always thought he was a good man and there is nothing at this point in my life that will change that perception,” said Ward, who noted that Lott has always been very supportive of the organization. “Bad things happen to good people.”

The group took no action during the Lott saga, because it was unable to reach consensus on how to address the matter. But behind the scenes, several staffers were counseling their bosses on the situation, Traynham said.

Despite the initial embarrassment, black Republican staffers might have found a silver lining in the Lott episode.

Last month, Congressional GOP leaders met with prominent black Republicans, including talk show host Armstrong Williams, to discuss ways to make the party more inclusive of minorities.

The Republican leaders promised to make hiring more blacks in GOP offices a priority in the coming months, and they pledged to review legislation that affects the black community.

“It was a blessing in disguise because it has caused Members to be really aware of the need for greater communication and an emphasis on black Republicans,” said Phyllis Berry Myers, president and CEO of the Centre for New Black Leadership, a right-leaning think tank.

More than 20 years ago, Myers helped form the Black Republican Congressional Staff Association, predecessor to The Association of African-American Republican Congressional Staff.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, then an aide to then-Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), was also one of the organization’s founding members. The group was active for about four years before it quietly disappeared, a victim of the transience Capitol Hill, where staffers work for a short time before moving on to other jobs.

Still, the original group’s mission is strikingly similar to what 21st century black Republican staffers are trying to accomplish.

“We, as black American Republicans, believe that it is the responsibility of all citizens to take an active and participatory role in the political system of our nation,” reads the preamble of the group’s constitution that was adopted in October 1979. “We believe that the tenets of the Republican Party best exemplify the ideals to which we subscribe.”

Current black GOP staffers also have another thing in common with their predecessors: They are a minority in their own party as well as a minority among Capitol Hill staffers.

Blacks make up about 8 percent of the 20,000-plus staffers who currently work on Capitol Hill, according to a 2001 employment study conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation. Of this 8 percent, Ward estimated that only 1 percent are Republicans.

The current staffers have another thing in common with their predecessors: Sometimes there is a sense of being alone.

Myers said in those days if you were a black Republican staffer, “oftentimes you thought you were so isolated.”

Traci Scott, communications director for Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), said there are times when she walks into a large meeting of GOP staffers and looks around to see that she is the only black person in the room.

“I look in the room and say, ‘OK,’” said Scott, who worked as a television reporter before moving to the Hill in 2001 to serve as Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) press secretary. “But that has been part of my life. You walk in with with your head held high.”

The staff association has no relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, an organization that tilts overwhelmingly to the Democratic Party. In fact, former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) chose not to join the organization when he served in office. But the conservative aides said they have no animosity toward the CBC.

“I think it is safe to assume that we agree that we must continue to strive for a better America,” Traynham said of the two organization’s goals. “What we don’t agree on is how to achieve the objective.”

In the short term, Myers is helping the new group get its bearings by supplying them with information, including the minutes of the original staff association’s meetings.

The significance of creating such an organization is not lost on Scott and her colleagues.

“We are kind of trailblazers to some extent,” she said. “We haven’t had too many people ahead of us in some of these positions, and there are people that are going to come in behind us.

“Hopefully, what we are doing when these people come in is they won’t be in the same situation when they walk into the room,” she added.

On Thursday night the group will be holding a meet-and-greet at the D.C. restaurant Bistro Bis.

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