Blacks joining GOP, but worry at slow acceptance

September 17, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County's black Republicans are changing -- and in turn want their party to change.

The county GOP long has attracted the blacks who in political circles are known as "Lincoln Republicans" -- those whose Republican loyalties can be traced to the Great Emancipator.

But in the last several decades, the party has received a slow, steady infusion of younger black professionals in the county who are more aggressively seeking the economic and political power that their white counterparts enjoy.

As they make a home for themselves in the GOP, some black Republicans -- estimated at just 5 percent to 10 percent of the county's registered voters -- say the local Republican Party has been slow to recruit them and yield power to them.

For instance, there are no blacks on the county's seven-member Republican Central Committee, no black Republicans on the Howard County Council and no black Republicans in the county's state legislative delegation.

"It could do a lot more," says Verna Lawes, a black Republican on Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Board, of the party she joined in the 1980s. "I don't think there is a real desire to reach out."

Not true, says Allan Kittleman, chairman of Howard's Republican Central Committee. The local GOP is receptive, he says, but black Republicans must voice their concerns.

"We don't know the concerns of the African-American community unless we hear them," Mr. Kittleman says.

Election officials no longer keep racial statistics on voters. But political observers agree that blacks have remained a steady constituency in the county's newly ascendant Republican Party, which controls the county executive's office and last year captured a majority on the County Council for the first time.

African-American Republicans include Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing administrator, and Melvin Bilal, president of an employment staffing company in Columbia. In 1984, Mr. Bilal switched to the GOP after 20 years as a Democrat and ran in

1986 for the Maryland lieutenant governor's office on the Republican ticket.

Another prominent black Republican is Evelyn Tanner, the former Board of Appeals chairwoman. She switched from the Democratic Party last year and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the east Columbia seat on the Howard County Council, held by Democratic incumbent C. Vernon Gray -- one of the county's two highest-ranking black politicians.

And there's Randall Keith Nixon, 38, owner of Nixon's Farm in West Friendship, who in the mid-1980s became a Republican, like his father before him.

"I was brought up to believe that the only way black people [can have] anything of significance in this country is through self-actualization," he says.

Though he doesn't agree with the national Republican Party's religious conservatives and says the GOP has been hostile toward blacks in the past, he maintains that "the positives outweigh the negatives."

Mr. Nixon's embrace of the GOP is at a time when black Republicans are gaining more prominence nationally, espousing the same economic and social views as their white counterparts.

Examples include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Reps. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Gary A. Franks of Connecticut; and Alan L. Keyes, a Maryland resident and conservative radio commentator who is running for president.

Black Republicans in Howard County -- where the Democrats still enjoy a lead in voter registrations -- say they're attracted to the party's philosophy of free enterprise and self-reliance, and its emphasis on family values.

But in Howard, where the 1990 U.S. Census found that blacks make up 11.9 percent of the population, including the state's highest percentage of blacks earning $50,000 or more a year, black Republicans remain a small minority.

J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., a Columbia-based political polling group, estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of Howard's registered blacks are Democrats and 5 percent to 10 percent are Republicans. Another 5 percent of county blacks are registered as independents, he estimated.

Those numbers are a stark contrast to the days before the civil rights movement, when the Republican Party in Howard and elsewhere was home to blacks alienated by a traditionally segregationist Democratic Party.

Historically, blacks were drawn to the Republican Party because President Lincoln freed the slaves, said David A. Bositis, senior political analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

During Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, many blacks switched to the Democratic Party, Mr. Bositis said. Others switched during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

Yet as late as February 1966 -- a time when the county still was keeping such statistics -- registered black Republican voters outnumbered registered black Democratic voters 931 to 451, according to county election data. White Democrats outnumbered white Republicans 10,420 to 4,635.

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