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HOUSTON — The mostly white crowd that turns up for weekly meetings at King Street Patriots is becoming a problem for tea party leaders.
The “monochrome composition” of the gatherings must change, they say, if conservatives want to keep this Texas county out of Democratic hands in 2012.
“The tea parties recognize the urgency. They want their monochrome composition to be addressed,” said Apostle Claver, a black Republican whose Raging Elephants Group works to expand the GOP’s conservative base. “In order for conservatives to win elections in the future, we are going to have to aggressively, unrelentingly, without ceasing bring diversity into the base. It is a crisis.”
Claver frequently speaks to groups such as King Street Patriots, urging them to consider that outside the warehouse that serves as the group’s headquarters, Houston and its surrounding suburbs in Harris County are becoming increasingly diverse — and liberal.
Not only did President Barack Obama become the first Democrat in four decades to win the county in 2008, but his recent visit to El Paso has led some to believe he is trying to expand his reach in conservative Texas ahead of 2012.
To fight back, a group of mostly black conservatives is trying to recruit ethnic minorities to the tea parties. The national initiative, called the Boots of Liberty Taskforce, borrows community-organizing tactics from the left.
“We’re training conservative volunteers to come into the community and basically become organizers. We’re using the ACORN community model, but we have modified it for conservatives,” said Anita MonCrief, who worked for ACORN before defecting to the tea parties two years ago and devising the outreach plan.
Starting next month, MonCrief plans to have entrepreneurs teach minority groups in Houston how to start their own small businesses. She has asked a Hispanic activist, Maria Espinoza, to discuss how illegal immigration contributes to crime and takes jobs away from legal residents.
And as trust builds, MonCrief and Christine Engelbrecht, founder of King Street Patriots, plan to send tea party members into minority neighborhoods to register voters and promote tea party ideals of limited government, individual liberty and free enterprise.
“Capitalism is the pathway out of poverty, and that’s what we have to show these communities,” said MonCrief, who grew up in a poor black neighborhood. “I think that after six months in the black community, we can show that the tea party is more effective than the 40 years of social programs and constant victimhood that they have right now.”
The immediate goal is to defeat Obama’s re-election bid, but the tea-party organizers said they are reaching out to private funders and nonprofits to build lasting infrastructure. MonCrief is a national spokeswoman for the conservative group American Majority, which has supported the project.
They plan to take the project to Maryland next, where MonCrief lives, and to other diverse parts of the country. But starting first in Harris County, the Lone Star state’s most populous, was deliberate. The county has seen an influx of minorities in the past decade, and its population is 38 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black.
“Harris County is obviously the biggest prize. The greater Houston area is the largest pool of voters in Texas,” said Harvey Kronberg, editor of a Texas political publication called the Quorum Report. “It is trending Democratic.”
Nearby suburban counties long considered conservative strongholds are also moving left. Kronberg questioned whether tea party efforts could change that, saying he sees “no evidence in Harris County of any significant Republican success with African-Americans.”
The tea party members admit they have already faced setbacks. MonCrief started a black tea party group, the Crispus Attucks Tea Party, which was recently kicked out of its meeting space.
Engelbrecht, who is white, said her race made it difficult for her to organize election monitoring during the midterm elections.
“If I went into a community with a bag on my head and said, ‘Isn’t it tough raising a family,’ I think we would see eye to eye. I think that we’re the same,” she said. “The parties have done a lousy job to bridge that gap.”
Both leaders remain confident that their message will prevail, however. MonCrief, who voted for Obama in 2008, said her personal disenchantment with the president is indicative of a larger sentiment among blacks that could align them with the tea parties.
“There’s a quiet murmur in the black community because nothing that he has done has helped the black community. He’s actually made it worse. People are paying more for groceries, the gas prices are ridiculous,” she said.
Claver agreed, and he said there are many hidden conservatives who are “camouflaged by race, by neighborhood.”
“These are folks that think like we do, believe like we do, agree with me on conservative issues, but they self-identify as Democrats. They’re literally voting against their values and their self-interest,” Claver said. His group has conducted polls that show 80 percent of African-Americans agree with conservative principles on social, fiscal and national defense issues.
Like the other tea party leaders, Claver blamed Republicans for “ceding the black vote to the left.” He warned, “If the composition of the Republican Party doesn’t change dramatically and quickly, the prospect of them winning elections diminishes at warp speed pace.”
That’s where Engelbrecht said groups such as King Street Patriots can help. Tea party activists have been looking for ways to remain politically involved now that the movement’s rallies and protests have faded.
“In the tea party movement, you’ve got all these people who want to do something,” she said. “Our country will not be knitted together just by forwarding emails, so roll up your sleeves.”
Correction: May 24, 2011
The article misidentified the Boots of Liberty Taskforce.