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Republicans Mount Outreach to Blacks

More than 350 prominent black leaders from across the country will meet with Republican officials today to discuss education, health care and other issues at a forum the GOP is billing as an “African American Leadership Summit.”

It is the first major gathering of blacks at a GOP-sponsored event since Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) appeared to praise retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 segregationist presidential platform late last year.

The summit is also one of several initiatives Congressional GOP leaders are tailoring to the black community in the coming weeks, as the party seeks to make inroads into a voting bloc they currently lose by a 10-1 margin.

“I do think the African-American community wants the Republican Party to listen to them and they want access,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), who organized today’s event. “That is something we ought to be doing in every way we can, and this is one way we can.”

The summit is one of two centerpiece projects that Senate Republicans had been planning with top African Americans this year even before Lott made the statement that cost him the opportunity to once again serve as Majority Leader.

Next month, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) is hosting “The 4th Annual Historically Black College and University Congressional Forum” for presidents of those institutions of higher learning. Senior Senators and administration officials are scheduled to speak to the group on educational issues.

Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) started the forum four years ago and handed the reins over to Santorum when he retired from Congress in January.

Santorum has also initiated a monthly meeting with high-level black leaders such as Kay Cole James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, and Phyllis Berry Myers, president and CEO of the Centre for New Black Leadership, a right-leaning think tank, to “stay in better touch and communicate and understand what issues are important” to the black community. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) have appeared as guest speakers, an aide said.

“These are moderate- to conservative-oriented African Americans who talk about issues of concern to them,” Santorum said. “This also provides an opportunity for them to get to know the players here in Washington.”

But Republicans are not just holding meetings and forums in an effort to woo black voters. Last week, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Frist and a handful of other Republicans visited Frederick Douglass’ home to announce a $955,000 grant to help restore the famed abolitionist’s house, which has fallen into disrepair.

At the home site, GOP leaders also talked about “Fulfilling America’s Promise,” an agenda Republicans have created in the wake of the Lott episode that is targeted to specifically help the black community.

The agenda is rooted in traditional Republican philosophy and pledges to create 100,000 new jobs for blacks, provide better educational opportunities for black children and provide better health care access to the black community. Setting these goals came as a result of a highly publicized meeting between black Republicans and GOP leaders earlier this year to talk about how to make the party more inclusive.

Republicans are also pushing hard for passage of a Global AIDS bill, a legislative priority of both President Bush and some black leaders. In an e-mail sent Tuesday from his political action committee, VOLPAC, Frist asked supporters to help pressure Senators to pass the legislation this week.

“The President announced the outline of this bill in the State of the Union, the House has passed it, and now it is up to us to pass it this week so he can take it to the G8 conference next month, which he has personally requested,” Frist wrote. “This bill will save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Later this week, the Majority Leader will give the commencement address at Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically black college in Atlanta. He will use his visit to Morehouse to “outline his principles for new legislation to address health disparities,” a release from his office states.

“He made it clear from day one that outreach to all communities was a goal of this Republican leadership and of the Republican Party,” Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said. “Not just in the Senate, but party wide.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, charged that these events were intended solely as “photo opportunities.”

“Black people are hurting tremendously,” Cummings said. “But the African-American electorate is not fooled by these events.”

Cummings pointed to a sluggish economy, which is hitting the black community particularly hard, as a Republican policy failure and said black voters will take note of that in 2004.

“I don’t see that changing soon,” Cummings said of the economy. “I see it getting worse.”

Many GOP leaders were concerned that Lott’s statements in December had burned the bridge the Republican Party was slowly attempting to build into the black community. But Watts, who is black, said he is not sure the bridges were ever there to be burned.

“I could make a strong argument we didn’t burn bridges because we didn’t build any,” he said.

Watts said this is why the groundwork being carried out by the current leaders is important in convincing African Americans the GOP is an inclusive party. But it won’t be an overnight success, the former Representative warned.

“This is not a short-term proposition, and I do think we have to say in ’04 we are going to do a better job and we want to get 10 to 12 percent of the black vote,” he said. By 2014, Watts said it is possible for the GOP to get 25 percent to 27 percent of the black vote.

Santorum agreed with Watts that the GOP has largely ignored black voters for too long, even though “The Republican Party was started on the whole issue of civil rights … and African Americans up until the Great Depression were a core voting bloc for the Republican Party.

“We haven’t spent the time and effort in communicating and just getting to know the community as well as we should,” he said.

Attendees at today’s summit will hear from a number of senior White House officials including Education Secretary Rod Paige, one of three senior African Americans in the Bush administration, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, among others.

“I want them to hear what we are doing on the issues they care about,” Hutchison said of the invited guests. “And we want to hear from them on what we ought to be doing in a different way or what they are concerned about and to give us an idea of their priorities.”

As for the Lott episode, Hutchison said she thinks that “people understand that mistakes are made.”

And Santorum acknowledged that “things were not good in December” after the Mississippi Senator made the segregationist comment. But he thinks the situation forced his party to re-examine how it works with the black community.

“I always say that anything that happens in life presents challenges and opportunities for us,” he said. “To me, what happened a few months ago highlights th need to do that.”

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