Ideas cross racial lines to win support

May 15, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

JOE ROGERS must have whipped up some of his best oratory and saved it all for us little old Baltimoreans. He was in town this week, speaking on the 21st floor of the World Trade Center and presenting a striking image with his neatly pressed black suit, short Afro and stocky build.

Rogers is black and Republican, the highest-ranking African-American elected state official in the country. The lieutenant governor of Colorado was in Baltimore as part of city Republicans' Lincoln Day celebration. He had come here after attending six funerals in Littleton and visiting the families of 12 children wounded in the April 20 massacre that left 15 dead. Rogers started off his speech talking about the Littleton tragedy because there was no logical or moral way to avoid it.

But after thanking Marylanders for their prayers and condolences, Rogers broached the sometimes hilarious, sometimes infuriating and always controversial topic of what it means to be black and Republican. Rogers was indeed in strange territory here in Maryland, where to be black and Democratic is not so much a choice as it is a chronic illness. Although there were several black Maryland Republicans on hand to hear Rogers' speech -- Victor Clark Jr., chairman of the city's Republican Party, Michael Steele, vice chairman of the state GOP, and mayoral candidate Arthur Cuffie Jr. -- being a black Republican is viewed as treasonous in these parts. Rogers found it was no different in Colorado when he started his political career.

Rogers decided to run for a congressional seat that had been held by Pat Schroeder since he was 8 years old. He held the news conference announcing his candidacy on the lawn in front of Schroeder's office. He didn't do it to be brash, Rogers assured his fellow Republicans. It wasn't even to be mean-spirited.

It was "to serve notice that the seat belonged to the people," Rogers said, "not to any one person."

Then came the task of converting black Democrats to his cause. Rogers knew it was an uphill battle.

"You know as well as I do that the community least likely to vote for me, a Republican, was my own people," Rogers reminded those assembled. He sought the endorsement of Denver's black, liberal and Democratic Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Along with two liberal Democrats (Schroeder wasn't one of them; she decided not to run again), Rogers went to a meeting of 20 to 25 ministers seeking an endorsement. Before the candidates even began speaking, Rogers was asked to step outside briefly.

"One of the ministers wanted them to vote on a motion to decide if I would even be allowed to speak," Rogers recalled. Nothing, it seems, brings out the fascist side of liberal black Democrats than a black Republican in their midst. The ministers voted to allow Rogers to speak, "with the understanding that I would not be endorsed," Colorado's lieutenant governor remembered. But Rogers was ready for the challenge.

The ministers lobbed "nice, softball questions" at the two Democrats "that they hit out of the park," Rogers said. Then it was Rogers' turn to speak.

"If you can imagine," Rogers told his fellow Republicans, "all of a sudden, in unison, the pastors girded back in their seats as if to say, `What does this young man have to say to us today?' "

It turned out the young man had plenty to say. Rogers started off by reminding them that his mother had visited all of their churches as a guest singer. She had taken him along. He had heard them preach about working hard, staying out of trouble and to never forget where he came from when he reached adulthood. Rogers told the pastors he had simply taken their advice.

When they asked him why he supported tax breaks and tax incentives, Rogers answered that people with money should have a chance to invest that loot in communities that have little or no money. When they asked him why he advocated welfare reform, Rogers responded that you don't empower poor people by leaving them on welfare but by helping them get off it permanently. When they inquired why he was so tough on crime, Rogers' answer was poignant.

"Aren't you tired of going to funerals? Aren't you tired of performing funerals?" The questioning went on for an hour, with Rogers ending each of his answers with a rhetorical "Wouldn't you say so, pastors?" When it was all over they gave him a standing ovation and their endorsement. The pastor who called for the vote on whether Rogers would be allowed to speak became the chairman of the Democrats for Rogers. Three became Republicans. Rogers won the election with 50 percent of Denver's black vote.

The battle between political parties is a battle of ideas. Thank heavens Joe Rogers, Victor Clark, Arthur Cuffie and others are around to prove that ideas have no color line.

Pub Date: 5/15/99

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