Both Parties Court Minority Vote
Senior Democratic and Republican leaders will lay out dueling agendas today, each designed to appeal to black voters and sway their votes before the November elections.
The Congressional Black Caucus chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, will deliver a speech at the National Press Club this afternoon, where he will call for a change in the national leadership and outline the CBC’s political plan for this election cycle, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Democrat said.
Tonight, Senate Republican leaders will convene a meeting of 500 black community leaders and businessmen in what is being billed as an African American Leadership Summit. Vice President Cheney and GOP Senators will be among those speaking at the two-day event.
“I think it is very helpful for all sides,” said Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), who organized the summit. “It makes us better able to do things that matter here, because we do listen and we also make them more aware of a different approach then they have seen all these years from Democrats.”
The Republican meeting will focus on the economy, education and health care and is just one of several initiatives both parties are undertaking this year as GOP leaders seek to make inroads into communities that traditionally have supported Democrats.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) will meet with the presidents of historically black colleges and universities over the coming months, and will also co-host with the White House a larger gathering of these educators in the fall. In addition, the GOP will host a Hispanic Leadership Summit this summer to promote the Republican Party’s legislative platform.
“It sort of peels away this image that these guys are monsters or anti-minority,” Armstrong Williams, a prominent black Republican who hosts a syndicated radio program, said about the GOP’s attempt to reach out to minorities.
Specifically, Williams said Republican leaders have made “tremendous” progress in adding more black staffers to their Congressional offices, an issue that flared up in the wake of Sen. Trent Lott’s (Miss.) decision to step down as Republican leader in December 2002. Lott vacated the post after coming under pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike when he appeared to praise Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) segregationist 1948 presidential platform. At the time, Williams and others called on GOP leaders to make an extra effort to recruit more blacks for their staffs.
Congressional Republicans said they do not keep data on the number of African Americans working in GOP offices, but did point to a program named for 19th century Republican Rep. Joseph Rainey (S.C.) aimed at encouraging black college students to work as interns in House Republican offices. A House leadership aide said more than 75 students applied for the program, and while just seven were selected to participate, many more were offered internships.
Senate Republicans are set to launch a similar program tailored to recruit black college students this summer, and House Republicans have designed a scholar program named after another 19th century trailblazer, Rep. Romualdo Pacheco (R-Calif.), to reach out to college-age students of Hispanic heritage that will begin this fall.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), who is the Senate Democrats’ liaison to minority communities, dismissed the GOP’s efforts as ploy to collect votes in November.
“This is basically an effort by the administration to persuade the American public to rehire the president,” she said.
The New York Democrat charged that people need only to look at the GOP’s legislative priorities to see they are not serving the interests of individuals from the Hispanic and black communities.
But Santorum took issue with those who view the GOP efforts to connect with minorities as an election-year tactic, although he acknowledged Republicans need to demonstrate their commitment to issues that are important to these communities.
“You know it is not important this year,” Santorum said. “What is important is we do it every year.
“If it is seen and perceived that, ‘Gee, it is important this year because it is an election year,’ then it is phony,” he added.
While GOP leaders are attempting to bring more minorities under their tent, Democrats are holding meetings and events with the same constituencies Republicans are courting. Congressional Democrats will hold their own African American Leadership Summit, meet with the presidents of historically black colleges and universities, as well as hosting a forum for leaders of the Latino community this year.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) said he believes that minority communities in several states such as Alaska and South Dakota (American Indians) as well as California and Florida (Hispanic) could play an important role in GOP efforts to pick up seats currently held by Democrats.
But Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, scoffed at Allen’s suggestion.
“I believe that when it comes down to the issues, whether it is Native Americans, Hispanic Americans or African Americans, all of those populations on the issues will find a much better home in the Democratic Party than the Republican Party,” he said.
Woodhouse also pointed to a trio of minority Democrats running for open Senate seats this year: Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson, who can claim American Indian roots, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, who is black, and Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Hispanic. The most prominent GOP Senate candidate representing a minority community is former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, who is Hispanic.
Each party is fielding an African-American contender in the open-seat Georgia Senate race, but both Rep. Denise Majette (D) and Godfather’s Pizza mogul Herman Cain (R) are viewed as substantial long shots.
While Santorum and his GOP colleagues are holding meetings and events to appeal to minority leaders outside of the Beltway, the Pennsylvania Republican also periodically meets with conservative black leaders and administrations officials such as Kay Coles James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, Phyllis Berry Myers, president and CEO of the Centre for New Black Leadership, and Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
Santorum said he views the GOP’s outreach to minorities as a “long-term project that is going to take education both ways.”
“This didn’t happen overnight and it is not going to be solved overnight,” he said.