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Republicans Still Seeking to Boost Diversity Through Recruitment

Coming out of the 2008 cycle there was much discussion in GOP circles about the party’s diversity deficit, and Michael Steele’s election in January as the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee was viewed as a possible beginning of a new era of inclusivity, especially for black Republicans.

Today, 13 months before the 2010 elections, the GOP has a real shot of electing its first black Member to Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) left in 2002. If that happens, Congressional Republicans would welcome only their fifth black colleague since Reconstruction.

“The NRCC, along with all levels of the Republican Party, has recognized that we can always do a better job of reaching out to communities that share our values but who may not have supported us in recent elections,— National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said this week. “That being said, we have been fortunate to have a successful recruitment year overall that includes a number of African-American candidates.—

So far just under a dozen black Republicans are running for the House, and black candidates are in the mix in GOP Senate primaries in Texas and Colorado.

This week another black Republican will formally enter the race in Maryland’s 5th district against House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D).

“We’re encouraged by the number of minority candidates we have so far; however, the work is not done yet and we will continue our aggressive minority candidate recruitment strategy so we can be competitive in races in 2010,— RNC spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.

At the moment, the black Republican with perhaps the best shot in 2010 is veteran and former North Carolina state House nominee Lou Huddleston (R), who is running in the 8th district against freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D).

Huddleston wasn’t the first choice of GOP officials in this competitive Charlotte-area district, but as more well-known candidates passed on the race, party operatives on Capitol Hill have warmed to the retired Army colonel and defense industry consultant. But before he gets to Kissell, Huddleston will have to win a multicandidate primary that includes wealthy businessman and veteran Tim D’Annunzio.

After announcing in August, Huddleston is expected to file a six-figure fundraising report later this month. Kissell reported more than $214,000 in cash on hand at the end of June.

Huddleston said last week that he credits Steele for not being afraid to talk about the touchy subject of race and Republican Party politics.

“If you want to change something you have to start talking about it,— Huddleston said. “I think Chairman Steele has effectuated that change. It is solidly recognized, it is a problem. Whereas five, six, seven years ago, when I went to a function, it wasn’t even spoken about. Getting people to talk about things that they aren’t comfortable with is the first step.—

But while he’s glad to see the party recognize a long-running issue with minority communities, Huddleston said recruitment has been and always should be based solely on qualifications.

“My relationship and association with the NRCC has been totally based on me offering myself up as a candidate based on my qualifications. … [When I announced] I did not receive a pamphlet in the mail from the RNC that said you’re an African-American and here’s your African-American candidate book.—

Huddleston said he’s not looking to become a novelty on the campaign trail.

“I have to be careful that I do not allow the media to give me attention solely because I am an African-American,— he said. “That’s not why I’m in this race. If you want to talk about national security, let’s talk. If you want to talk about the economy, let’s talk.—

Les Phillip, a Navy veteran and black Republican running in Alabama’s 5th district, said that in a political environment where Democrats control Congress and the White House, he’s found that his message of fiscal and social conservatism are more important than any discussion of race.

“Right now people are more concerned about what I’m saying than what I look like,— said Phillip, who also faces a primary in a district near the top of GOP target lists.

Phillip said he has started networking with other black Republican candidates around the country, including Iraq War veteran Allen West, who challenged Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) last cycle and is running again after losing by 10 points.

“There’s a lot of new blood coming into the Republican Party that hasn’t been acknowledged because it hasn’t been seen yet,— Phillip said.

Dylan Glenn — a former Bush administration appointee who is black and ran for Congress in Georgia several times — agreed. Glenn, who has met with NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) this cycle to talk about the party’s efforts to support minority candidates, said Republicans have a growing farm team of diverse candidates who will help change the face of the party.

“With Michael Steele being the chairman of the party, no one can question the commitment [to diversity], even though there has been an ongoing commitment predating the Haley Barbour chairmanship days [and] certainly kicking into high gear when [Barbour] was around,— Glenn said.

Back in 2005 then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman went before the NAACP to speak on the issue of diversity.

“The [former Speaker] Newt Gingrich model … was to get a farm team at the state House level,— Glenn said. “That doesn’t show up as a metric, but it is progress. In my estimation, it is chipping away at what has been a big problem for the Republican Party.—