Black leaders meet with GOP officials

Discussion focuses on how to raise party participation


WASHINGTON -African-American leaders met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Republican officials yesterday to discuss how to increase black participation in the party.

"It's been a very positive discussion," said Marc Racicot, Republican National Committee chairman. "We established an understanding of what it is we've already done. We've made appointments that reflect the diversity of America. We've reached out to [African-American] candidates aggressively," he said.

The two-hour meeting at the committee's headquarters included about 16 representatives from the business, church and political communities.

Yesterday's discussion was the first of its kind and the first in a series organized by nationally syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams. A second meeting is scheduled with House Republican leadership - including Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas - on Jan. 28.

Williams said the idea for the discussions occurred to him after the recent furor involving Sen. Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who stepped down as majority leader after drawing harsh criticism for his praise of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential candidacy.

"A light just went off in my head," Williams said. "I said: `We need a meeting of the minds. There needs to be some sensitivity.'"

Racicot said the talks centered on ways to set agendas and frame issues in ways that make sense to African-Americans as well as ways to recruit and support black candidates and include black people in staffing at all levels of the party and in government.

"This is morally the right thing to do. If coincidentally it produces election victories, so be it," he said.

Williams said Frist took a lot of notes and was very receptive to the ideas being discussed yesterday.

"Senator Frist believes today's meeting was productive, and [he] will continue to maintain an open dialogue," said Nick Smith, a Frist spokesman.

Said Williams: "The Republican Party has to realize we cannot be lily white anymore. We are here to do some housecleaning."

At the Jan. 28 meeting, participants are expected to delve into policy issues such as faith-based initiatives, schools and racial-profiling legislation.

There, the real work can begin, Williams said.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "We'll see what becomes of this meeting and what happens after this meeting Jan. 28."

However, Alex St. James, chairman for the African-American Republican Leadership Council, said yesterday's discussion was unnecessary.

"I didn't see the need for that meeting. The party is already very proactive in reaching out to African-Americans as demonstrated in the last election results where we gained a lot of support from African-Americans," he said, adding that he will not attend the Jan. 28 meeting, either.

"I don't see the need for a special meeting," he said.

St. James' organization is a conservative Republican group within the black community that identifies, recruits and trains African-Americans to be future public policy activists.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota noted that the administration chose to renominate U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering - whom Democrats have accused of being insensitive to racial issues - to a court of appeals.

"When it comes to protecting equal rights, we still have a lot of work to do in changing hearts, in changing minds and in changing laws," he said. "Unfortunately, that lesson still seems to be lost on a number of our Republican colleagues, in spite of their expressions of intent over the course of the last several weeks."

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