WASHINGTON – Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman (search) has launched a new and focused push to reach out to African-American voters that could not only benefit the GOP but could send a wakeup call to Democrats who have been accused of taking the black vote for granted.
That's the perspective of Ron Walters, a longtime Democratic activist who listened to the RNC chairman speak at the National Association of Black Journalists' 30th Anniversary Convention and Career Fair in Atlanta, Ga., last week.
"I think he said a lot of the right things. [Republicans are] putting money behind this outreach and he ran down a number of things that the administration should be doing that would be attractive to African-Americans," said Walters, who is director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.
"Some of this stuff is really very serious," Walters said. "It's not like before when the Republicans sort of said that the party was reaching out to the black vote when they really weren't."
Mehlman has recently embarked on the GOP's latest, and some say most ambitious, attempt to woo black voters, who overwhelming vote Democrat at every level of government. Mehlman's strategy includes an effort to remind black voters of the historical ties between them — for example, the GOP began in part as a successful anti-slavery effort and unanimously backed the constitutional amendment to end slavery in 1865.
In July, he apologized to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention for the Republicans' so-called "Southern strategy," which used race as a wedge issue to bolster support among white voters in the Democratic South, beginning with Richard Nixon's successful 1968 presidential campaign.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," he told his audience. "I am here today as a Republican to tell you we were wrong."
Mehlman has peppered his remarks with references to the GOP as the party of "Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglas" as well as his late grandfather, Joseph Mehlman, who was a member of the NAACP. He also has picked up the discussion with black voters on education, voting rights and job training.
Supporters are calling it the best strategy Republicans have ever offered for healing the rift and getting black voters to start listening to the GOP.
"It's a brilliant [strategy], long overdue, and I think Ken Mehlman gets it," said Peter Kirsanow, a Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. He said Mehlman, who became chairman of the RNC after leading President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, has been frequently traveling to black colleges and universities to make his pitch. "That's a lot different, I say, from pre-2000," he said.
Republican Party officials say Bush received 11 percent of the African-American vote in the 2004 election, compared to 8 percent in 2000. Black votes for Bush also reached double-digit figures in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida where he previously had failed to crack 10 percent.
"When you start making incremental changes like that with double digits … then that starts chipping away at their base," said RNC communications director Tara Wall. "We can't truly call ourselves a majority unless we take back the black vote as the party of Lincoln. We are going to reclaim that."
But critics say that if they want to do that, they had better offer something more than historical rhetoric.
"I would say the proof is in the results that follow, not necessarily in the speeches — and [African-Americans] have heard the speeches over and over again," said Paul Brathwaite, spokesman for the Congressional Black Caucus (search).
Brathwaite said blacks still lag behind whites in key quality-of-life issues, including 10 percent unemployment, compared to 4 percent for whites. Only 48 percent of blacks own homes, compared to more than 70 percent of whites.
He said the question black voters have for Republicans is, "You are in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, is it really having an impact on my life and making it better?"
Walters added that historical allusions "don't wash" with blacks, who know that many of yesterday's Southern white Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 have taken refuge in today's Republican Party. They know that conservatives in the GOP advocate a more limited role of the federal government in civil rights and oppose most affirmative action polices currently in effect, he said.
"While it sounds good rhetorically … most blacks know better," he said. Mehlman may underscore the correct issues of concern, he added, but "the Republican formulation in these areas is conservative and that's the difficulty."
Walters does not deny that Democrats have been remiss in strengthening their own ties with the black community and failed to put the resources into 2004 voter turnout. He added that Republicans encouraged conservative support among black churchgoers in battleground states by talking about social issues like gay marriage.
"It was the Democrats' fault for not investing in the black church structure and putting more resources in," he said.
New Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (search), who raised plenty of eyebrows in June when he called the Republican Party the party of "white, Christian males," has committed himself to shoring up predominantly black pockets of the South as part of his party's overall strategy to gain a better foothold in the Southern states.
"We're doing the work, we're not just talking about it," said DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney.
"The truth of the matter is that Bush policies hurt African-Americans," Finney added, pointing to everything from Bush's plan for personal retirement accounts to what she said were cuts in funding for HIV/AIDS prevention programs and grants for small businesses.
But Alvin Williams, head of Black America's Political Action Committee said he believes that conservative solutions to these issues are the new model for change, and he is hoping to convince black voters by helping to elect more conservative African-Americans from the local level on up.
He said he hopes this is part of Mehlman's strategy, too.
"We should encourage the party to go much further, into the recruitment and support of these [black candidates]," he said. "That's where the rubber hits the road."