WASHINGTON - Republican efforts to court black voters, helped by black church leaders, "should be cause for alarm" among Democrats. That's not me talking. That's Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, writing in the Feb. 28 issue of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
Black voters have turned away from the party of Abe Lincoln since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. But these are new times. Black turnout for President Bush grew to 11 percent nationally last November from 8 percent in 2000.
After Ken Mehlman took office as Republican National Committee chairman in January, he immediately embarked on a national good will tour to widen that black GOP vote. "Among Democrats, Mehlman's efforts should be cause for alarm," Ms. Brazile wrote. But she said they "could also be a boon to Democrats, who now may finally get serious about trying to figure out the best ways to keep their loyal base intact."
She's right. After years of being taken for granted by Democrats and written off by Republicans, many African-Americans I know, including me, miss the days when we were wooed by both parties. Such bipartisan courting all but ended in the 1960s when the GOP became a haven for many Southern segregationists and Northern "white-flight" conservatives.
Less impressed are the traditional liberal black leaders. In a recent radio interview, NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond chided the age-old push by conservatives "to find, develop, nourish, support and heavily fund some kind of an alternative leadership for black Americans."
But let's step back: Having visited some of the ministers around the country who have been receptive to Mr. Bush's outreach, most of them do not fit Mr. Bond's stereotype of "make-believe, black-face front groups ... with white hands on the strings and black faces dancing down below."
In fact, most of them appear to be the same sort of neighborhood-based churches and pastors to whom Democrats have turned for election victories. Out in America's real neighborhoods, citizens don't appear to care as much about who's liberal or who's conservative; they just care about what works.
Ms. Brazile recognizes what the GOP is doing by working through black ministers because that's how she and other Democratic organizers brought out the black vote over the years. If the faith-based initiatives are a new form of patronage, at least it has more built-in accountability than the old variety. If a program does not work, local folks know it right away and funding can be cut off.
Giving federal funds to religiously affiliated organizations troubles those of us who care about the separation of church and state. But the Bush administration has reframed that concern into a compelling counterargument: Government should not discriminate by religion, they say, but neither should it discriminate against giving churches a chance to provide a lot of social good - such as food banks, drug treatment, job training, homeless shelters, family and juvenile counseling and after-school programs for children, among other services.
Politics is mostly perception.
As long as black voters, especially churchgoing black voters, see Mr. Bush as fighting for programs that can help black communities while his mostly Democratic critics are seen as getting in the way, Mr. Bush wins. Even if he does not bring in a black voter landslide, Mr. Bush looks less scary and, in politics, the lack of offense can be almost as good as support.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.