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This weekend, I found myself sharing the stage in Atlanta with many of the icons of the modern civil rights movement as commentator Tavis Smiley convened a forum to discuss the “State of the Black Union 2005.” This year, in addition to debating the predictable myriad of national issues, we found ourselves discussing new players in the dialogue — blacks who lean Republican. [IMGCAP(1)]

While Democrats continue to rebuild after their setbacks in the 2004 elections, GOP leaders are quietly being escorted and introduced in the black community by leading ministers. Among those was our host, politically independent Bishop Eddie Long, the electrifying black pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. And while Long and like-minded blacks may have found themselves in the minority on stage this weekend, their voice in the debate was not to be missed.

Long, who with other leading pastors has met with President Bush, was quick to point out he enjoyed the new relationship and dialogue. Like many other prominent leaders, Long is one of those Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman hopes will undertake a new mission within the GOP.

Part of this mission, as Mehlman framed it before a predominantly black audience last week in New Jersey, is “to make the party of Abraham Lincoln whole again.” Just what does Mehlman mean by that phrase, and how will this impact a group that has been the most loyal supporters of the Democratic Party?

Like Long, the GOP is preaching a new gospel to black voters yearning for answers to problems such as a lack of jobs, access to quality health care, prevention and treatment of the spread of HIV/AIDS, decent and affordable housing and the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.

There’s little doubt that Long will assist the GOP in getting its message to black voters willing to step into a shorter line. Once they start listening to Republicans, some may even like what they hear. And until more African Americans come “home” to the party of Lincoln, Mehlman promises the GOP will not cease its outreach efforts. “Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice. A choice in education — where you can attend college. A choice where you live, a choice to own a business, a choice to own a home,” according to Mehlman. Put simply, Democrats must respond to the message coming out of the RNC.

Black voters deserve — and the preservation of the party rests on — a strong response from Democrats, who have been the proud beneficiaries of the black vote. The party’s presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), received 89 percent of the black vote in 2004. More than 36.7 percent of his total vote came from people of color. But in many key states including Ohio, Florida and Michigan, the GOP increased its percentage of the black vote by making a modest investment of resources, reaching out consistently to ministers and polarizing the black community with divisive wedge issues such as same-sex marriage.

While the GOP’s investment did not result in a majority of votes, it provided Republicans with an opportunity to join the dialogue. It won’t take much for the GOP to garner 12 percent to 15 percent of the black vote in future elections, as some blacks are starting to believe the community is not well-served when one party takes their votes for granted and the other party doesn’t work to earn them. Where is their leverage?

But the GOP will face many challenges in the debate. First, it will be challenged to do more than invite a handful of ministers to the White House. Secondly, it will be asked to explain its new budget and the devastating impact it will have on black families and children. Lastly, black voters will likely demand a discussion of their biggest concern: the lack of jobs.

Traditionally, black leaders have been successful in getting Democrats to deliver on job creation, public education, boosting Historically Black Colleges and Universities, providing small-business loans and grants to help sustain the community and the expansion of civil and voting rights for all. Can the GOP match or exceed what Democrats have been able to bring home?

When it comes to presidential contenders in 2008, black Democrats can boldly and proudly stand behind the Democratic label if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) decides to run. Blacks love the Clintons. But, what about potential GOP contenders like Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.) and governors like Mississippi’s Haley Barbour and Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney? What are their track records? Or, to paraphrase Janet Jackson in her hit song, “What have you done for us lately?”

If Republicans are truly desperate to try to bring black voters back to the GOP (or at least remain in the debate), they must be willing to put forth candidates who can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. And for Democrats, it’s time to reach out and empower local black officials to deliver our message to their communities early and often.

Among Democrats, Mehlman’s efforts should be cause for alarm. Clearly, this is going to be one heck of a political season if Mehlman continues to take his case to black audiences around the country and does more than pay lip service to his audience’s needs. But it could also be a boon to Democrats, who now may finally get serious about trying to figure out the best ways to keep their loyal base intact.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.

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