Carolina Opportunity

Posted February 12, 2003 at 6:10pm

The Senate candidacy of 5th district Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has created an open seat that may provide national GOPers with a chance to not only fill the void of black Republicans in the halls of Congress but also to move out of the shadow cast by Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) comments late last year.

Winston-Salem Alderman Vernon Robinson (R), who is black, is expected to join the race, and said Wednesday that he has fielded calls from the Bush administration and the Republican National Committee about his candidacy.

Several other Republicans are also considering jumping in, but Robinson argued that he’d be the favorite and would run with the blessing of national GOP leaders.

RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Taylor did not comment on Robinson’s candidacy directly, but did say “the national party is always looking to recruit more African-American candidates.”

“It is certainly a priority and we are excited when they throw their hat into the ring,” she added.

Robinson, however, detailed the discussions he has had with national officials.

“The gist of the conversations is that the departure of [former Rep. J.C.] Watts [R-Okla.] and the Trent Lott debacle have caused a political problem for Republicans,” he said.

Watts, the lone black Republican in the House or Senate since Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) was defeated in 1996, retired at the end of the 107th Congress. He is mentioned as a Senate candidate in the event that Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) decides against running for re-election.

Lott was driven out as Senate Majority Leader after making comments in support of former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) segregationist presidential bid in 1948.

National Republicans have expressed concern that the Lott furor and Watts’ retirement will reinforce negative stereotypes that their party is not welcoming to minorities.

“Some of the party leadership will be swayed by the interests of national Republican leaders in this race,” Robinson said. “I am the only black Republican that can be realistically elected to Congress in 2004.”

The district’s demographics clearly favor Republicans. The GOP has a 7 percent registration advantage over Democrats, and the seat was made significantly more Republican in the decennial redistricting process. President Bush would have received 68 percent of the vote under the new lines, and Democrats are not expected to field a serious House candidate.

Burr has held the seat since 1994 but is vacating it to make a run for Senate. He announced the formation of an exploratory committee Monday that boasted a veritable who’s who of North Carolina Republicans — including former Sens. Jesse Helms, Lauch Faircloth and Jim Broyhill — as campaign co-chairmen.

If Robinson enters the Congressional race, it would be his ninth campaign for elected office, only two of which have ended successfully. He has twice sought the office of state superintendent of public instruction, losing in 1992 to now-Rep. Bob Etheridge (D), and then falling in a 1996 open-seat race to Mike Ward (D).

In the 1996 race, Robinson carried Forsyth County, which includes Winston-Salem, the population center in the 5th district. He lost that race 52 percent to 46 percent despite receiving more than 1 million votes.

Robinson was elected to the Winston-Salem City Council in 1996 and re-elected in 2000. He lost a general election race for state House in 2002, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Robinson said his past races give him a leg up in this contest.

“I have been on the ballot running against a strong opponent in the counties that make up this district four times and won four times,” he said, referring to his primary and runoff races in 1992 and 1996.

Robinson also argued that his belief in eliminating the income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax, and his work to abolish racial quotas will resonate with party leaders.

“I am not going to embarrass the president on racial quotas like [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, [Secretary of Defense Condoleezza] Rice and Watts did,” Robinson said.

Robinson is the president of the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, which advocates for school choice and voucher programs.

His would-be opponents were unwilling to cede Robinson the frontrunner mantle, however.

“Vernon has run 10 different times and won twice in a very small ward,” said Forsyth County Commissioner Peter Brunstetter (R).

“It isn’t a surprise to me that he is out actively working this,” Brunstetter added. “There hasn’t been a race [Robinson] hasn’t worked on.”

Brunstetter has served on the county commission since being appointed to a vacancy in 1991. He has been re-elected three times.

Another potential candidate, former state Rep. Ed Powell (R), said, “There are candidates running who are large noisemakers but who are not effective in reaching across the aisle to get measures enacted” — an apparent reference to Robinson’s outspoken conservatism. Both Brunstetter and Powell pointed to experience as a key component to their chances in the race.

“We need someone in there who has had a lot of experience,” said Powell, who was elected to the state House from Forsyth County at age 31, served one term, and then went on to a position in the Cabinet of North Carolina Gov. Jim Holshouser (R) in the late 1970s.

Powell, who is now a lobbyist, said he is giving “strong consideration” to the race. He has spoken with Burr as well as Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), who served with Powell in the Holshouser administration, about the race.

“Congressman Coble and I have been friends for a long time,” Powell said.

Brunstetter has served as chairman of the county commission since 1993 and said there will be a “premium on experienced leadership” in the race.

“I’ve had 13 years as an elected official running one of the largest counties in the state,” he noted.

Another intriguing name being bantered about is that of attorney Jim Snyder, who was defeated by now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in the 2002 primary. Snyder has been in Washington for the past few days testing the waters for several races.

“I am looking at all options,” which, he said, include a Congressional race, a return Senate bid or a gubernatorial contest.

Snyder believes his race against Dole gives him an edge in name recognition and organization over the other candidates looking at the House seat.

“We are ready to move,” Snyder said. “I believe Washington will appreciate that we are a candidate of the future.”

One potential problem for Snyder is that he currently resides in the 12th district of Rep. Mel Watt (D) and has no plans to move.

Other Republicans being mentioned for the race are former state Rep. Lyons Gray and Davie County Commissioner Dan Barrett.