The Lonely Life of a Black Conservative Republican

March 24, 1991|By ARCH PARSONS

WASHINGTON. — Washington.

Connecticut's Gary Franks, the first black Republican to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives in more than half a century, candidly describes himself as "part of an endangered species."

But Mr. Franks' candor derives from another rarity he can claim: Of more than 7,000 black elected officials in the nation, he is one of a lonely few to achieve election as a conservative black Republican -- certainly the only one to be elected to a post of

national significance.

The overwhelming preponderance of black elected officials are Democrats, who characterize themselves as liberals or moderates. Most, if not all, of the remaining number of electees are moderate-to-liberal Republicans, who amount to less than 10 percent of the total, by Mr. Franks' estimate.

But the number of black conservatives in elected office is so minuscule -- if indeed it goes beyond Mr. Franks -- that he didn't bother to estimate it.

Meanwhile, black conservatives such as Thomas Sowell, of Stanford's Hoover Institute, who is regarded as the political philosophy's guru, and, more recently, Shelby Steele, professor of English at San Jose State University, who made some best-seller lists with his psychological approach to black conservatism, "The Content of Our Character," have had much more popular success in the last decade than their vote-seeking brethren.

Thus far, black conservatism seems to have much more attraction for white readers than it does for black voters. Mr. Franks himself eked out his victory in a majority-white district which he described as the "most conservative" in the state; only 4 percent of the voters were black.

In a post-election, lunch-time talk at the conservative Heritage Foundation on "the role of black conservative leaders in the 1990s," the 38-year-old freshman congressman from Waterbury, Conn., concluded that if more of his fellow conservatives are going to get elected, they have "quite a job ahead."

Part of the problem, Mr. Franks indicated, is a Republican Party which can't make up its mind how badly it wants -- or needs -- the black vote. Another part of the problem, from the view of other black conservatives, is that black voters have yet to be lured away from their reflexive support of Democrats at the polls.

Under a formal GOP "outreach" program aimed at bringing blacks into the party fold, the Republican National Committee contributed $62,000 -- the maximum allowed -- to Mr. Franks' campaign, and both President and Mrs. Bush visited his district to attend fund raisers.

But in his Heritage Foundation postmortem, Mr. Franks said the "bottom line" was that at election time, Republican Party officials "don't want the black vote to come out in large numbers because they see every black vote as a vote against them."

Another black conservative who has been an unsuccessful candidate for statewide office on the Republican ticket took an even tougher view of what he described as the GOP's failure to "maintain a consistent effort to attract blacks."

Speaking only with a promise of anonymity, he said: "At the statewide election level, the party doesn't believe that blacks can be successful. Nationally, since the days of Ronald Reagan, it has had no need for the black vote, and it sees no need for it now."

Mr. Franks' election, however, has caused GOP officials to paint a rosy future for black Republicans, conservative or otherwise. "He'll be a national spokesman for the party," Charles Black, the RNC's chief spokesman, effused in an Associated Press report. "He'll be a great example for us to recruit other blacks to run for office and to draw black voters into the Republican Party."

To which Mr. Franks, picking his way through his first days in Congress, was reported to have replied, "I would like to do all that I can to help my national party, and I will do so if time allows."

For Joshua Smith, a black conservative who has become an informal adviser to President Bush on civil rights issues, the Democratic Party proclivities of black voters clearly are the main cause for frustration.

"Why is it that African-Americans, to the tune of 9-to-1, vote for a Democrat?" Mr. Smith asked during his own Heritage Foundation talk recently. "Because of that known fact and the predictable outcome, [black voters] have no leverage. [We] can't say to [Democrats] with whom [we] disagree, 'If you don't do this, you're gonna lose votes,' because they know they're going to get the votes."

Robert Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise -- who casts himself as a "radical independent" but is one of Mr. Bush's closest black advisers -- sees conservatives, black and white, as their own villains in the chase for black votes. They have made the mistake of casting themselves as "enemies" of blacks and the poor, he says, rather than seeking "strategic alliances" with them.

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