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Blacks and the Republican Party: Let the Courtship Begin

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman did more than show up at the NAACP’s 96th Annual Convention last week in Milwaukee, Wis. In his speech, Mehlman acknowledged, for the first time, the GOP’s past use of racially divisive tactics to attain an electoral advantage over Democrats. Although Mehlman did not spell out in any detail the GOP’s past transgressions, he called on the delegates attending the convention to renew “our common bonds.”

[IMGCAP(1)]While I applaud Mehlman’s remarks and the GOP’s unprecedented outreach to black voters, the GOP, when it comes to race relations, has some distance to go before it reclaims its heritage as the party of Lincoln.

For starters, Mehlman must acknowledge and review the Republican Party’s history with respect to states’ rights, law-and-order legislation, welfare reform, affirmative action and challenging the voting status of minorities, and to come up with concrete steps that would address its failure to understand the needs and concerns of African Americans.

In his remarks, Mehlman addressed how and why the GOP went wrong in failing to compete effectively for the black vote. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” he said. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

Here’s where they went wrong. The GOP was wrong to embrace the Dixiecrats’ agenda of segregation and racial isolation. They were wrong to “court” unredeemable racists such as David Duke, allowing them to use their party as cover to harass and intimidate black voters throughout the South. They were wrong to dismiss civil-rights leaders as mere tokens of the Democratic establishment. They were wrong to use wedge issues in political campaigns that stereotyped blacks as dependent on welfare and bent on committing crime. (Remember Willie Horton?)

The truth is, the GOP has a lot of catching up to do. At the same time, the civil rights community must welcome the party’s belated embrace.

Some of us are still upset at the 10 Republican Senators: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bob Bennett (Utah), Thad Cochran (Miss.), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Judd Gregg (N.H.), Trent Lott (Miss.), Richard Shelby (Ala.), John Sununu (N.H.) and Larry Craig (Idaho) — who have steadfastly refused to sign on as co-sponsors of a bill to apologize for the Senate’s failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. They are clearly wrong, and their continuing silence speaks volumes on the current state of affairs within the GOP and, we are left to assume, their real attitude on race relations.

As Mehlman said in his speech, Democrats have come to the table with something “real to offer.” Likewise, with the GOP in control of the White House, the Senate, the House and arguably the judiciary, as well as a clear electoral advantage at the state level, it’s long overdue for the “party of Lincoln” to bring something with them when they come into our neighborhoods. Let’s start with jobs, jobs, jobs.

President Bush touts his “ownership society,” but without a job, you can’t own much of anything. The last time I checked, black unemployment is still double that of whites, and the prospects for younger African Americans remain stagnant. The Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress could make Mehlman’s job a lot easier if they would stop reducing the federal budget in areas such as minority health, small-business development, student loans, Medicaid and education.

The president also could get a tremendous boost from black voters if he were seen as reaching out more to traditional civil rights groups such as the NAACP, with its new President and CEO Bruce Gordon, and the National Urban League, led by President Marc Morial — a new generation of leaders.

Black voters also are paying attention to the courts and who the president appoints to fill the vacancy left by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The GOP could open a new chapter by working with Democrats to reauthorize the three provisions of the Voting Rights Act that are set to expire in 2007.

The GOP’s long march back to embracing civil rights and voting rights would signal a new day on the horizon. From my vantage point as a partisan Democrat and organizer, there is noting wrong with Mehlman’s overtures to black voters and for showing up four years before the next presidential election cycle to break the ice, extend an olive branch and recruit some Democratic defectors. After all, Mehlman understands the simple math of winning.

This brings me to my last point. 2006 is going to be an important year for both major political parties as they vie for control and advantage in Washington and the state capitals. In a third of the key gubernatorial and Senatorial states, blacks make up 15 percent or more of the state’s voting age population. Yes, in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas, the party that succeeds in drawing black voters to the polls is most likely to win in November 2006.

That is why I am telling my Democratic friends to stop pretending that blacks are solidly reliable next year. The courtship is under way, and I hope this time we can go beyond conversation about the past and race relations in general so that African Americans can truly benefit from the votes they cast.

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

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