GOP talks a good game about recruiting blacks


July 05, 1998|By HAROLD JACKSON

REPUBLICANS too often shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to recruiting African-American voters. One major GOP contender for local public office committed a gaffe that set back strategies developed only days before by the African-American Republican Club of Howard County.

That group and the Howard County Young Republicans got together June 25 to discuss ways to attract more black voters. But two days later GOP County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who is running for county executive, upset the African Americans in Howard County Political Action Committee by not showing up for its candidates forum.

Mr. Feaga, who is in a tight race against fellow Republican council member Dennis R. Schrader, doesn't need bad publicity. But he opened the door for accusations of racial insensitivity, hurled not only at him but at his party.

Mr. Schrader was at the forum (so was Democratic county executive candidate James Robey). But Sherman Howell, vice president of the PAC, said of Mr. Feaga's absence, "It always seems to end up involving Republicans, historically, that kind of inattention."

Well, that all depends on how far back in history you want to go.

The party of Lincoln

The party of Abraham Lincoln provided quite a bit of attention to African Americans after the Civil War. The GOP remained the party of preference for most black voters well into the 20th century.

The great migration of blacks to the urban North after World War I introduced them to a Democratic Party different from the one preferred by racists in the rural South. The New Deal offered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression brought many of them into the Democrat fold.

By 1940, the black electorate was fluid. Harry Truman had reason to worry whether he could retain black support after FDR's death. The number of black voters had swelled and his opponent in the 1948 election, former New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, had a good civil rights record.

That was one reason Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which ended segregation in the armed forces. It was a risky move. Arguments over the civil rights plank of the party platform during the 1948 Democratic Convention had already upset Southerners. They angrily formed the States Rights Party and nominated South Carolina Gov. J. Strom Thurmond for president.

Truman won and the Republican Party was left to wonder what might have been had it garnered the votes that went to the Southerners' third-party campaign. Thereafter -- through the Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns -- the GOP tailored its message to appeal to Southern conservatives.

As a result, many blacks decided they wouldn't vote for a Republican for dog catcher. But that has been changing.

Class, more frequently, means more than race in the twilight of the 20th century. In affluent Howard County, the party associated with wealth should be able to recruit middle-class African-American voters. If its candidates don't shoot themselves in the foot.

Charles Feaga didn't deliberately snub the African-American PAC. He had a schedule conflict.

Park dedication

That same morning, a park was being dedicated in memory of Christopher Kelley, a child killed in a 1990 bicycle accident. Christopher's death so moved Mr. Feaga that he sponsored what is now Howard County's bike helmet law.

He wanted to be at the park dedication. But it was scheduled for 10: 30 a.m.; the county executive candidates were scheduled to speak at the PAC forum between 11: 30 a.m. and 1 p.m. It certainly appears that Mr. Feaga could have attended both events.

Mr. Feaga said he received the park dedication invitation first. The PAC admitted it didn't send out invitations until June 19, but said it had been promoting the event for a month.

The question for Mr. Feaga is the same one facing the rest of the Republican Party. Do they really care about getting African-American votes?

It sounds real good to say the party is making special efforts to bring in minorities. But actions speak louder than words.

The African American Coalition estimates there are 7,500 eligible African Americans in the county who aren't registered to vote. The coalition has begun a voter registration drive to get as many as possible of these non-participants to the polls.

Mr. Feaga, Mr. Schrader and Mr. Robey have all said they don't plan to specifically seek minority votes or those of any other group. But why shouldn't they?

Making a special effort to appear at a group's forums, places of worship or special occasions isn't pandering. It's showing that you care. A lot of people who don't vote don't think the candidates care about them.

If the Republican Party is serious about bringing in more African-Americans, it is going to have to have candidates who do a better job of showing they care about people, all people. Sometimes all that takes is showing up.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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