Political suitors

April 24, 2005

AFTER INCREASING their support for President Bush in last fall's elections, black voters are being aggressively courted by an emboldened Republican Party and wooed anew by a humbled Democratic Party that strayed.

It's a good position to be in, and black voters should play hard to get.

The competition forces both parties to better address the needs and concerns of all black people.

A new generation of politically astute young voters stands to benefit the most. Detached from civil rights-era politics, they don't define their positions in narrow racial terms. They refuse to be pandered to or taken for granted, and are now in the position to influence American politics.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal research organization focused on policy issues important to black people, found that while blacks older than 50 vote solidly Democratic, 17.2 percent of younger blacks identified with the Republican Party in 2002. Of those 18 to 25 years old, 8.6 percent identified with the Republican Party and 8.6 percent described themselves as Republican-leaning independents. Additionally, 25 percent described themselves as conservatives and 31 percent as moderates; 66.4 percent supported school vouchers, and 79.3 percent favored partial privatization of Social Security.

Those numbers don't always translate into lasting support for a party with a tendency to take positions that seem counter to the best interests of black people. The Supreme Court case that pitted the Bush administration against the University of Michigan's affirmative action program is one example.

Also, the Republican Party is still viewed as a white party with no black members in Congress and just one black member on the 165-member Republican National Committee. The Democratic National Committee has 93 black members out of 445, including 14 on its executive committee. All 43 blacks in Congress are Democrats.

That hasn't stopped the DNC from renewing outreach efforts, however. Chairman Howard Dean is planning a listening tour with communities of color in all 50 states. Republicans are being even more aggressive -- as well they should, since they have more convincing to do.

Mr. Bush conspicuously signaled in his State of the Union speech last January his party's interest in bringing more blacks into the Republican fold. Soon after, Ken Mehlman, chairman of the RNC, embarked on "Conversations with the Community," a national tour of meetings with black Americans. He also announced the formation of an RNC African-American Advisory Committee. "If you give us a chance, we'll give you a choice," has become his standard line to black audiences.

For now, that choice appears to be strictly on Republican terms. The party's positions on gay marriage and school vouchers may resonate with black conservatives; however, the modern GOP has yet to embrace an issue -- racially skewed death penalty sentences, for example -- that is important to large numbers of blacks. Yet it would only be to the Republicans' benefit -- and the nation's -- if the governing party were to start taking the concerns of blacks seriously. This is an ideal time for young black voters to push both parties to go beyond rhetoric and symbolism and map out meaningful political and social agendas that benefit the larger black community.

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