New black GOP club, but Grand Old Pattern

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August 18, 1996|By NORRIS WEST

I'M NOT SURPRISED to find African-American Republicans are not extinct. Maybe it's because of Pop.

My father -- Pop to us -- was born in Mississippi in 1904, when the GOP still was viewed as Abe Lincoln's party of liberation.

Only three years earlier, Rep. George White of North Carolina ended a 31-year run of black Republicans serving in Congress, an era that began in Reconstruction with Sen. Hiram Revels of Mississippi in 1870.

I've always respected my father, but he was stubborn. Even when blacks went Democrat with Roosevelt, Pop stood pat.

A factory worker at the Campbell Soup Co. for 47 years, he never abandoned his party, even as it forgot about him.

He died a Republican.

I never understood why he stuck with a party that resisted civil rights legislation even at the height of the movement.

And I think members of a new club in Howard County are kidding themselves if they think Republicans are willing to accept them as equal partners now.

But a dozen trusting souls have put enough faith in the GOP to form the African-American Republican Club of Howard County.

The club's members include 38-year-old Randall Nixon, owner of Nixon's Farm in West Friendship and Melvin Bilal, who heads an employment staffing firm in Columbia. The president is Delroy Cornick, a former Morgan State University business professor who has lost three nonpartisan races for the county's school board.

They started the club hoping to extend the Republican Party's reach in Howard County's black community. So far, the GOP has only tickled the grass roots of local African-Americans. Only 5 to 10 percent of the county's black population here are registered Republicans. There are no blacks on the Howard Republican Central Committee and no black Republicans in the county's state legislative delegation.

Fed up with Democrats

Verna Lawes, a Wilde Lake village board member, said she got fed up with the Democratic Party about a decade ago and changed her affiliation. She's journeyed across the political spectrum from being a delegate for Jesse Jackson at the 1984 Democratic National Convention to secretary of the African American Republican Club.

"It was the same old rhetoric, and nothing changed," says Lawes, of the Democrats.

U.S. Rep. J. C. Watts, a black Oklahoma Republican, also changed political stripes.

Watts, a former star quarterback with the Sooners, said he thought that being a Democrat was his "birthright" until he covered a debate between candidates for a U.S. Senate seat when he was a journalism student in college.

"I walked back to the J-school building afterward confused and shaking my head because I found myself agreeing more with the Republican than the Democrat," Watts wrote last year.

"The Republican candidate had made sense. His words resonated with the values on which I had been raised, echoing all the things my dad had taught me: work hard, play fair, be responsible, pay your own way."

My reaction to reading Watts' thoughts was surprise at finding that the GOP had gained a monopoly on hard work, fair play and responsibility. I've listened to these values preached in many a Democratic household as well as my own two-party home.

And, in fact, the GOP has checked fairness at the door along with compassion. If fair play means equal opportunity, it is conspicuously missing from the GOP. The party's hostility to affirmative action programs that have benefited the likes of Clarence Thomas is deplorable.

Welcome aboard?

To most African-Americans, the GOP is the party of wealthy whites who are either indifferent or averse toward their plight. This may be a slight exaggeration, but Republicans haven't done much to dispel this perception despite their seeming fascination with Colin Powell.

Despite a made-for-TV production of racial harmony in San Diego last week, the GOP has not shown any willingness to even acknowledge that the nation's discriminatory past has affected generations of African-Americans.

For years, now, Republicans have made empty promises to reach out. And for years, it's recruitment line has been: "Sign up, but don't expect to change our ways."

Democrats, who have not done much themselves lately, count on the Republican stance more than anything to keep blacks as its most loyal bloc.

Lawes, a supporter of affirmative action, says she decided that the Republican Party's philosophy is closer to her own.

"Even their platform," she says. "There are some things I disagree with them on. By being in the party I can articulate my disagreements."

I wish her luck. And I'll keep an eye on her progress in breaking through ossified GOP walls.

But I doubt that she and her club will get far.

This indeed may be a time when the GOP is opening its door to African-Americans. Unfortunately, it's the back door.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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