WASHINGTON – While Democrats like to call the GOP the grand old party of white men, a packed reception for black Republicans at the Republican National Convention (search) told a different story.
"I think that the Democrats want us to come to the table to eat the crumbs, but Republicans want us to come and eat at the banquet," said Geraldine Sam of Lamarque, Texas, who is one of 20 black Republicans in the Texas delegation this year.
The Texans joined a throng of attendees Monday that included radio talk show host Armstrong Williams, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and Democratic Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams at a soiree sponsored by the conservative Black America's Political Action Committee (search ).
But while blacks made up 12 percent of the electorate in 2000, they voted nine to one in favor of Democratic candidate Al Gore, and few indicators suggest this year's vote will be much different.
Democrats say they Bush has not only ignored African-American issues, but has actively hurt the advancements the community has made over the last three decades.
"Unemployment and poverty among African-Americans have increased for the first time in a decade; education and health care programs that benefit African-Americans are under attack," reads a recent statement by the Democratic National Committee. "The Bush administration has declared war on affirmative action (search) and Bush sees no problem with appointing federal judges that have defended cross burners and questioned voting rights."
Sam acknowledges that the number of black Republicans is quite slim in comparison to their Democratic counterparts. Minorities at this year's Republican convention make up 17 percent of total delegates, a 70 percent increase over the 2000 convention. Sam insists that one by one, African-Americans are realizing that they are being taken for granted as a monolithic voting group, and while it will take time, she and others are working actively to change minds.
"I do think Democrats have taken blacks for granted," said Cynthia Jenkins, an African-American delegate from Irving, Texas. Jenkins helps run the pro-GOP African-American Leadership Council in Dallas, which has produced eight delegates for the convention.
"There is a significant increase in participation here at the national convention — there are grassroots here," she said, though she did not estimate the number of African-American Republicans today. "In the next four years you will see another increase (of African-Americans)," she said.
Jenkins said that considering the tight margin in the 2000 campaign, Republicans will no doubt need all of the votes they can get.
"The Republican Party needs the African-American vote to win elections," Jenkins said.
"This is going to be my first Republican president to vote for," said Bob Battle, a black pastor from St. Paul, Minn., who said he switched from the Democratic Party in 1996 after feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the party's stand on social issues.
"I think I've always been conservative and I'm looking at the Democratic Party and it has become more liberal," he said. "I don't agree with them as much."
Republicans have attempted to make inroads into the African-American vote for years, appealing to their strong religious affiliations and their conservative views on issues like gay marriage. They have also found common ground on issues of school choice, like giving poor children opportunities to obtain government vouchers for private education.
But Democrats have pointed out that their defense of current affirmative-action policies, civil-rights policies and government-assistance programs like Head Start are most appealing to black voters and that is why they have their loyalty at the polls.
Sam, however, said that when she talks about issues like economic development, home ownership and better education — issues she said the GOP has a better handle on — she forces some diehard Democrats to think about their affiliation.
"These are things that every black person I know believes in," she said, noting that they may be a small group, but the national Republican Party as well as the White House have gone out of their way to include African-Americans like herself in setting the agenda for their community, something she said Democrats have not done.
"Democrats don't want us to contribute to the platform, they just want us to vote," she said.
Alvin Williams, co-founder and president of BAMPAC, acknowledged that since the retirement of Oklahoma Republican Rep. J.C. Watts (search ) two years ago, Congress is lacking any Republican African-Americans. But, he added, a number of high-profile African-Americans represent the Bush administration, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Education Secretary Rod Paige.
"The Republican Party has to have a long-term strategy" for encouraging Republican blacks to run for office, he said. "That's what we're doing at BAMPAC."
Dan Williams, a candidate for state Senate in Minnesota, said he's been a Republican for years, but acknowledged that it is difficult for many to break out of what has become a decades-long tradition of Democratic Party loyalty in the African-American community.
"But," he said, "the number of [black] independent voters or Republicans who are willing to 'go public' is increasingly tremendous."