GOP, Democrats present dueling messages on race

As demographics change, each wants to show its commitment to minorities

January 22, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - From affirmative action to federal judges to tax policy, Democrats are painting President Bush as an opponent of minority causes, countering Republican efforts to attract black and Latino voters for the 2004 elections.

A month after Mississippi Republican Trent Lott was forced to step down as Senate majority leader for making racially charged remarks, his party is working to mend its image among minority groups. But that effort coincides with the rollout of Bush's new agenda, which includes the nomination of conservatives to the federal judiciary and a tax cut most favorable to the wealthy that blacks and Latinos say threaten some of the gains they have made.

Last week, Bush spoke out sharply against the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies, arguing that the university's system of giving minority applicants an advantage in admissions amounted to unconstitutional quotas.

Bush took that stance as the Supreme Court prepares to hear the most significant challenge to affirmative action in 25 years. And it comes as Republicans face criticism from Democrats and black lawmakers that they are not devoted to the issues dearest to minority groups.

The president's position "called into question his commitment to expanding opportunity for African-American, Hispanic and Native American students," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Monday in a speech celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "All of us are left to draw one conclusion: His words about promoting educational opportunity were just that - words."

It is an accusation to which Republicans might feel vulnerable, given the uproar that toppled Lott after he said America would have been better served had it elected Strom Thurmond president in 1948, when Thurmond ran as a segregationist.


Lott's successor, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, a Bush ally, delivered a speech on King's birthday in which he pledged to work for racial reconciliation and minority opportunities.

Bush appeared Monday at an African-American church in Landover with a similar appeal: "There are still people in society who hurt. There is still prejudice holding people back."

The events were timely opportunities for top Republicans to try to repair their party's image among minority voters.

"The president and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill are trying to send a message that the Republican Party wants to create a new paradigm when it comes to how it addresses the issue of race and how it reaches out," said Niger Innis, a spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, the group Frist spoke to Monday.

That message could be crucial for Republicans, who hope to gain more of the growing black and Latino votes, and to retain support among whites sensitive to the treatment of minorities.

"The black and the Hispanic populations are growing much more quickly than the white population, and in many individual states, they're now becoming a voting bloc that is going to make it very, very difficult for Republicans to win those states," said David Bositis, a political analyst at the liberal-leaning Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"For 25 years, race was a plus for the Republicans - they used it to gain white votes," he said. "But there aren't any additional white votes for them to gain."

Last week, Frist joined officials of the Republican National Committee and black and Latino Republicans from around the country to discuss ways to recruit minority candidates and build a record of achievement on issues of concern to them.

"Our goal is to increase our base in the African-American community, and we know that black voters are ready to listen," said Pamela Mantis, an RNC spokeswoman.

Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, has reportedly calculated that if Bush won the same proportion of the white and minority votes next year that he did in 2000, he would lose the presidential election.

In a rare weekend announcement made just days after Bush took his stance in the Michigan case, the administration said Sunday night that for 2004 it will request a 5 percent increase in funding for colleges and graduate schools that serve black and Latino students.

Congress, though, is expected to provide this week more funding than Bush had sought for those institutions for 2003. So, Bush's request for 2004 would amount to only about a 2.4 percent increase.

Some black conservatives say the Lott incident - in which the president's harsh rebuke of the senator was seen as a signal for Lott to step down as leader - will ultimately help Republicans attract minority votes.

"The Trent Lott issue, and President Bush's response to it, showed black people the change in the Republican Party," said Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, who is black. Republicans, he said, "are taking back the moral high ground on race, and slowly eroding it away from Democrats."

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