Jewish World Review March 8, 2005 / 27 Adar I 5765
Blacks hearing a new gospel from GOP
Republican efforts to court black voters, helped along by black church leaders, "should be cause for alarm" among Democrats.
That's not me talking. That's Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, writing in the Feb. 28 issue of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
Brazile, a Louisiana Catholic and the first black woman to manage a major presidential campaign, offers a message to her fellow Dems: Don't get caught nappin' while your competition is standing at your supporters' doorstappin'!
Black voters have turned away from the party of Abe Lincoln since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. But these are new times. Black turnout for President Bush grew to 11 percent nationally last November from 8 percent in 2000 and to 16 and 13 percent, respectively, in Ohio and Florida, among other key 2004 battleground states.
After Ken Mehlman, the new Republican National Committee chairman, took office in January, he immediately embarked on a national goodwill tour to widen that black GOP vote. "Among Democrats, Mehlman's efforts should be cause for alarm," Brazile wrote. "... 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."
She's right. After years of being taken for granted by Democrats and written off by Republicans, many African-Americans I know, including me, miss the days when we were wooed by both parties. Such bipartisan courting all but ended in the 1960s when the GOP became a haven for many southern segregationists and northern "white-flight" conservatives.
Times have changed. If the GOP can move beyond inviting a few ministers to the White House, as Brazile points out, address job loss and the Bush budget's impact on black families and children, there's a chance for a black Republican comeback, although it won't come overnight.
"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, like Bishop [Eddie] Long," she wrote.
Bishop Long, a politically independent black pastor of Atlanta's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, hosted a recent civil rights forum that Brazile attended in Atlanta. The forum was sponsored by PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley and televised on C-SPAN. At the forum, Long and other ministers who had met with Bush praised their "new relationship and dialogue" with Republicans.
Less impressed are the traditional liberal black leaders. In a recent radio interview, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond chided the age-old push by conservatives "to find, develop, nourish, support and heavily fund some kind of an alternative leadership for black Americans."
But let's step back: Having visited some of the ministers around the country who have been receptive to Bush's outreach, most of them do not fit Bond's stereotype of "make-believe, black-face front groups ... with white hands on the strings and black faces dancing down below."
In fact, most of them appear to be the same sort of neighborhood-based churches and pastors to whom Democrats have turned for election victories. Out in America's real neighborhoods, citizens don't appear to care as much as the folks in Washington do about who's liberal or who's conservative; they just care about what works.
Brazile recognizes what the GOP is doing by working through black ministers because that's precisely how she and other Democratic organizers brought out the black vote over the years. If the faith-based initiatives are a new form of patronage, as some critics call it, at least it has more built-in accountability than the old variety. If a program does not work, local folks know it right away and funding can be cut off.
Giving federal funds to religiously affiliated organizations troubles those of us who care about the separation of church and state. But the Bush administration has reframed that concern into a compelling counterargument: Government should not discriminate by religion, they say, but neither should it discriminate against giving churches a chance to provide a lot of social goodlike food banks, drug treatment, job training, homeless shelters, family and juvenile counseling and after-school programs for children, among other services.
Politics is mostly perception.
As long as black voters, especially church-going black voters, see Bush as fighting for programs that can help black communities while his mostly Democratic critics are seen as getting in the way, Bush wins. Even if he does not bring in a black voter landslide, Bush looks less scary and, in politics, the lack of offense can be almost as good as support.
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