Party polishes image of minority inclusion Black delegates say they feel welcomed, but still outnumbered

Campaign 1996

Republican Convention

August 15, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAN DIEGO -- As television cameras followed Jack Kemp across the convention floor Tuesday night, Victor Clark, a member of the Maryland delegation, tried to make himself conspicuous.

"Let me get to the aisle," he said, moving a reporter out of the way. "It's good to have a black in the picture."

Clark, an African-American from Baltimore, laughed as he spoke, but he was serious in his intent.

Four years ago, Republicans held a national convention in Houston that was perceived by some as conveying a message of intolerance, extremism and exclusivity.

Here in San Diego, the GOP has gone to great lengths to try to present a multicolored party and to make minorities feel welcome.

In an effort to show they represent more than white conservatives, the Republicans have featured two blacks in prime-time speaking slots during the first two nights: Gen. Colin L. Powell on Monday and Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma on Tuesday.

At times, though, there has appeared to be far more diversity on the stage than in the seats.

A survey of delegates found that 91 percent are white and only 3 percent are black, fewer than in 1992.

Maryland's delegation is nearly as lopsided. Of the 64 delegates and alternates, only four are black.

The color of the convention depends on people's vantage point.

On the floor, it is obvious that the vast majority of delegates are middle-aged whites.

But watching the Powell speech on television, viewers might have been led to a different conclusion, because the networks focused heavily on the faces of minorities.

Despite being wildly outnumbered here, blacks in the Maryland delegation say they feel comfortable at the mostly white convention and are glad to see the GOP reaching out to other African-Americans.

Michael Steele, an alternate from Prince George's County, said that party members have been particularly friendly and welcoming.

When he walks around the convention, he said, people stare at the floor pass around his neck to see if he is a black delegate or merely a party staffer.

"They look at the badge, look back up at me, smile and say, 'Hello,' " Steele said.

They seem to be saying: "It's so good to see you here."

Maryland's black delegates have come to the Republican Party in different ways.

When Clark obtained a voter's card to use as proof that he could drink legally, he registered as a Democrat.

He switched parties, he said, because he was attracted to the GOP's free-market policies and emphasis on religious-based moral values.

Steele said he was drawn to the Republican Party because it reflected the values of self-reliance his mother espoused while he was growing up.

"My father died when I was 2 or 3 years old, and my mother raised me on her own and did not take any government assistance at all," said Steele, a 38-year-old lawyer with a Washington law firm.

"I saw my life experiences in the philosophy of the party."

None of the members of the delegation's black contingent is a predictable conservative.

Steele opposes abortion, but strongly supports gun control.

Jacqueline A. Fleming, a delegate from Lochearn, supports both abortion rights and gun control.

"It's like Colin Powell says, you disagree, but you don't run away," said Fleming, who ran unsuccessfully for the Baltimore County Council in 1994.

"You try to work things out."

Being a black Republican in such traditional Democratic strongholds as Baltimore City and Prince George's County has not been easy.

Clark, 51, a car salesman, has to attend Democrat affairs to keep up with what's going on politically.

Fleming, a 58-year-old school teacher, says her friends in Baltimore warn her, half in jest, to remove Dole stickers from her LTC Buick Century before she goes driving through city neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the blacks in Maryland's delegation say they want to send the same message to African-Americans that the GOP is trying to pass on here: They have a place in the party.

"I want to show that not all minorities have to be in one party," Fleming said.

Pub Date: 8/15/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.