The 13 African-American Louisiana delegates to the recent Republican National Convention in New York were greeted with open arms by both the state delegation (with 87 delegates total) and the national GOP. In a press release heralding the Louisiana delegation as one of the most diverse in the nation, a Republican spokesman said the Louisiana delegates "highlight the broad appeal of the Republican Party."
Black Republicans remain a distinct minority in the United States. In the 2000 presidential election, just 8 percent of blacks cast a vote for George W. Bush, while 90 percent voted for Al Gore -- a high-water mark topped only once before, when Lyndon B. Johnson swept the 1964 election with 94 percent of the black vote following his championing of the Civil Rights Act.
So what wooed these 13 Louisianians to the Republican Party?
In New York for the convention, Julie Sardie, an alternate delegate from New Orleans, sits down over a cup of coffee at a 6th Avenue deli to explain her political journey. "I got married young and divorced quick, and then I had two kids to take care of," she says. "So I worked and started my own business, a little catering business." Then came a surprising invitation. "Some African-American businessmen came to me, including Nolan Marshall, who has since passed away, and they said, Why don't you join the Republican Party?' I went to a meeting, and I liked a lot of the things I heard."
That was 25 years ago, and she hasn't looked back.
Sardie says that as a businesswoman, the Republican promise of reduced taxes appealed to her, and she also agreed that too many people were receiving public assistance. Having once worked three jobs while raising her two children, Sardie isn't a big fan of government handouts. "I believe if you work hard you can do anything," she says.
Other delegates have similar stories of recruitment. "When I got out of the Navy I met with Senator John Warner of Virginia," says Landon Allen. Allen is sporting a "Veterans for Bush" pin on his lapel; he's a retired Navy engineer now living in Gretna. "Back then he was thinking about running for Senate, and he asked for my help on the campaign. So I say that I'm a Republican because no one ever asked me to be a Democrat." Allen smiles. "They assumed I was a Democrat."
It is a common refrain among all the black delegates: the Democratic Party takes black voters for granted. Some, like first-time delegate the Rev. Claude White of Shreveport, speak quite bluntly on the issue. "The Democrats, every four years they have a weenie roast and a watermelon party and the Negroes say, Oh, they like us!'" says White. "The Democratic Party comes to minority groups every four years and makes the same promises. We've got to wise up, take the shackles off and be men and women." White, who honed his fiery oratorical style over 21 years as a Baptist pastor, reserves special vitriol for black leaders who he says toe the Democratic line. "I call them slave handlers -- they're there to tell the slaves what to do after they get their orders."
In recent elections, grumblings about being taken for granted haven't translated into any softening of support for Democratic candidates among blacks. In a state where only 28,500 of 1.4 million blacks are registered Republicans, White, Sardie and the other delegates have found that Democratic loyalty is still strong enough to provoke disbelief when their party affiliation is discovered.
"Some lady who knows my mom recently found out I'm a Republican," says Sardie, "so she called up my mom and said, Julie must be making over $200,000 a year!' And my mom said, Well, Julie's been a Republican for 25 years, and I think she was making $2 when she joined!'" Sardie says the conversation pointed to a common misperception: "African Americans think the Republican party is not their party, it's the rich man's party," she states.
WITH THIS YEAR'S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION expected to be a very close contest, the Republican Party's top strategists are looking for advice on how to change the party's image and perhaps scoop up a few more black voters. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, came to New Orleans in January with the president, who was attending a fundraiser at the National D-Day Museum. After Bush finished raising $1 million, Rove met representatives of the black business community to ask them what blacks thought of the Republican Party. Earlier in the day, Bush had made a stop at Central City's Union Bethel AME Church to tout his faith-based initiatives, a move seen as an explicit appeal to Louisiana's black voters.
Churches might prove to be the most effective meeting ground. "On a lot of social issues, African Americans look like Republicans. Religiosity -- that's an issue the Republicans own, so to speak," says Matt Streb, an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of the 2002 book The New Electoral Politics of Race.
Indeed, several of the black Louisiana delegates put their faith foremost when explaining their party loyalty. "I don't want to be associated with anything that does not promote righteousness and moral integrity," White says. "That's why I'm a Republican. I think the Republican Party reflects the most integrated and whole moral perspective."
Roger Hamilton Jr., an assistant district attorney in New Iberia, echoes White's views. "I'm a Republican because of [the party's] stand on family, education and religion," Hamilton says. "Those three values are the pillars of America and the pillars of any successful individual." Hamilton says that if blacks take a second look at the Republican Party, they might find it a natural fit. "Black families have always been a church-going people, people who want be well-educated, people who believe that a Sunday evening is best spent with their families," he says.
Sen. John Kerry has set out to combat the perception that the Republican Party is somehow godlier, most recently in last week's speech to the 35,000 attendees at the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans. Kerry wove biblical references throughout a speech that accused Bush of failing in his "compassionate conservative" agenda, and called attention to issues such as rising health care costs and unemployment. "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing," Kerry told the cheering crowd.
However, Kerry avoided mentioning social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and school prayer, issues on which religious blacks tend to agree with the Republican position. The Bush campaign hopes these congruent views will coax enough black voters into the Republican camp to cost Kerry the election. "If George Bush could win one-quarter of the African-American vote, that would make it very difficult for John Kerry to win any state with a large black population," says Streb.
Are congruent views on religion and related social issues, like abortion and school prayer, persuasive enough to coax significant numbers of black voters into the Republican camp? Don't count on it -- at least, not in this election year.
The Republican Party's most uncomfortable lingering association is the assumption that the party stands for racism. "For most African Americans, the Republican party is still the party of (Sen.) Trent Lott, even though he's not in a position of power anymore. It takes a long time to overcome those perceptions," says Streb. Blacks have not forgotten Lott's comment at Sen. Strom Thurmond's hundredth birthday party, that the United States would have been better off if Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat Party had won the presidency in 1948.
The contested 2000 presidential election is also still fresh in black voters' minds, and the majority believes that blacks were unfairly removed from Florida voting rolls in a deliberate effort to suppress the black vote. In a recent CBS poll, 85 percent of blacks responded that Bush had not legitimately won the 2000 election.
The Louisiana Republican Party has its own image problems among blacks, based largely on its choice of candidates, says Sardie. "Look at (former Gov.) Mike Foster -- from the African-American perspective, he's Bubba Redneck," she says, adding that she doesn't agree with this view. Blacks also still associate the party with David Duke, she adds. To combat this belief, Sardie has a simple proposal: "You get out the people who present your party in the wrong light."
Many delegates say the party could best improve its image by backing more minority candidates. If an attractive candidate is bolstered by the full support of the Republican Party, they say, crossover votes might become more common. Bobby Jindal, whose parents were born in India, is the example that springs to everyone's mind. The delegates hope that Jindal's near-success in the 2003 governor's race and his widely anticipated election in the upcoming 1st District congressional race show a paradigm shift in Louisiana's Republican Party.
Sardie believes Jindal's gubernatorial campaign -- which was endorsed by Mayor Ray Nagin -- finally awoke Louisiana's Republican Party to the realization that black leaders are willing to cross party lines. Sardie gave a fundraiser for Jindal during that campaign, and says that at first, the party didn't fully understand the candidate's potential. Jindal campaigned hard in traditional Republican strongholds, such as the majority-white districts in northern Louisiana, and neglected the black community, Sardie says.
THE NATIONAL REPUBLICAN PARTY used its 2004 convention to showcase the efforts it's made to increase diversity in the past four years. Following the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, Republicans were criticized for tokenism when it was noted that the stage shows displayed a rainbow of minority figures, while only 10 percent of the delegates' seats were filled by minorities. This year, convention spokespeople announced a 70 percent increase in minority delegates, with black participation up 65 percent.
That won't be enough to convince most black voters to defect from the party that has won their loyalty with policies aimed specifically at helping them, says Steve Taylor, an associate professor at American University who has authored several books on the politics of race. "It's a top-down mobilization of African Americans; they're getting a few people to run for office, and they're getting African Americans as delegates."
Taylor believes that the Democrats have held the loyalty of black voters by promoting policies that have a demonstrable effect on their lives. "The Democratic Party has taken some risks, for example, on affirmative action, which is hugely unpopular in the county at large. They're willing to take an unpopular stand, they'll risk elections to support programs designed to help African Americans." The Republican Party is trying a different tactic to attract black voters, says Taylor. "The outreach they do is to convince people that their policies are in black people's interests. Republicans want the black vote on their terms."
Democratic Rep. William Jefferson argues that the Republican Party hasn't shown that it's serious about helping black communities. "Until the Republican Party stands up and says, We believe that everyone has the fundamental right to vote, we believe in creating new jobs where they're needed, we believe in attacking African-American poverty and closing the health care gap between white ands blacks in this county, we believe in affirmative action so that people can start on a level playing field,' until they do those things, photo ops don't do any good," Jefferson says.
Yet Lynn Cawthorne, a New Orleans delegate immaculately dressed in a pin-striped suit with glittering gold cufflinks, says he's impressed with recent Republican policy initiatives aimed at the economic empowerment of blacks. Cawthorne, a self-described economic conservative, says he doesn't see the use of public assistance programs that are traditionally associated with Democrats. Welfare, he says, "makes African Americans comfortable in their position"; Cawthorne has more hope for Bush's "ownership in America" initiative aimed at increasing home ownership among minorities, and in tax cuts Cawthorne says help black business owners.
Landon Allen, the retired Navy officer, agrees that Bush's domestic agenda encourages self-sufficiency. "It's about us buying into society, not about society buying us," he says.
Yet if these policies have done any real good for black communities, Louisiana's delegates acknowledge that the news of the success hasn't made it to the street level. "People are stuck in the idea that if you're an African American you need to be a Democrat because they stand for us," says Cawthorne. "We need to disseminate information about the policies that have been beneficial."
The Republican Party hopes that its recent convention will be more than a showcase -- it hopes it will serve as a starting point for a new campaign to attract minority candidates. "Building trust is so key, and the way you do that is by going to the grassroots," says Streb. "Appointing a few African Americans to cabinet positions is important, and having African-American delegates is important, but it won't necessarily convince black voters."
In New York, the Republicans began laying out a game plan to build that trust at a forum organized by the National African American Steering Committee. Black Republican stars including former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts and NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann told the assembled delegates to start at the grassroots level. "Their philosophy is you start with county commissioners," says Cawthorne. "You start getting them elected, and then they move up the ranks."
To that end, Louisiana Republicans will stage house parties and informational forums this fall, working to increase memberships in local groups such as the Jefferson Parish-based Blacks for Bush and the P.B.S. Pinchback Society, named after the first black governor of Louisiana (from 1872-73) who was, incidentally, a Republican. "We're building a party," Allen says. Cawthorne agrees, saying it's time to show local blacks that "Republican isn't a dirty word."