Palin Shrinks Diversity Gap

Posted August 29, 2008 at 2:41pm

At every recent Republican National Convention, the GOP has struggled to make the party appear more diverse than its elected officials and pledged to renew efforts to recruit minorities and women.

There are high-profile speeches by a black Republican or two. And sometimes even a Harlem singing choir, or a black dance troupe.

In 2000, so many African-Americans were on stage — compared to the audience — that the Rev. Jesse Jackson ripped it as the “inclusion illusion.”

The quadrennial pomp quickly fades, and every four years, the party struggles again with the same problem.

This year, Republicans are pointing to Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) historic selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the first woman on a GOP ticket as a breakthrough that will help them shrink a diversity deficit that threatened to grow all the more stark this year with the Democrats’ nomination of the first African-American for president — with Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) accepting the nod on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, no less.

But the fortunes of the few black Republican politicians have faltered in recent years; none holds statewide office and none has held a Congressional seat since Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) left office in 2003.

And so women, and Palin, will be taking center stage, as the McCain campaign and the GOP hope to reach out to disaffected Democrats who voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) but have not yet warmed to Obama.

As she was introduced by McCain last week, Palin herself nodded to Clinton’s run as having put 18 million cracks in the “highest, hardest glass ceiling,” and added, “The women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

“Sen. McCain doesn’t like doing the expected, and he certainly lived up to that with his selection of Gov. Palin,” a House GOP aide said. “She is a woman, a mother and a hugely popular governor. She plays well with suburban voters, independents, women — groups where the GOP has struggled. Brilliant choice that showcases that we are a big-tent party.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is scheduled to speak at the convention tonight, was fast out of the gate with praise for the pick.

“I am absolutely beside myself with joy. I think this will be a day remembered for years to come as a breakthrough for women.”

Bachmann, who met Palin in a Congressional trip last month, said she could expand the party’s appeal to women who have historically tilted to the Democrats.

“I believe that this demonstrates to American women that Republicans understand American women and American women’s needs.”

In addition to Palin and Bachmann, the female speakers will take a third of the slots at the Republican convention, including Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii, former corporate CEOs Meg Whitman of eBay and Carly Fiorina of HP, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Reps. Mary Fallin (Okla.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Thelma Drake (Va.).

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) praised McCain for congratulating Obama on his historic nomination.

“I thought the ad that Sen. McCain had yesterday was great and appropriate. … There is no question that Barack Obama giving an acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech was a big deal,” he said.

But Blunt, following Palin’s selection, noted that Republicans were also making history.

“Eighty-eight years after our nation’s women first gained the right to vote, this selection demonstrates how far our nation has come,” he said.

Still, the party’s dearth of African-Americans will put a crimp in the diversity parade.

In 2004, Republicans called upon Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who was then the party’s top African-American elected official, to give a fiery prime-time address at the GOP convention as a counter to Obama. Fast-forward four years: Steele failed in his Senate bid and no longer holds office — he is chairman of GOPAC, an arm of the party that recruits and trains activists — yet is still speaking at the convention.

Aside from Steele, the other two black statewide elected officials from 2004 are also out of office: Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell lost his gubernatorial run in 2006; in St. Paul, he was named vice chairman of the convention platform committee. And former Ohio Treasurer and ex-Lt. Gov. Jennette Bradley lost a Republican primary in 2006.

“I would love to be hearing at this convention from Ohio Gov. Ken Blackwell and Maryland Sen. Michael Steele,” one GOP source said. “But they both caught a bad break in a tough year for Republicans. The party of Lincoln has always welcomed talented candidates who believe in freedom and security regardless of their race and will continue to do so.”

Nonetheless, the party has failed to make inroads with African-Americans despite much-touted efforts — including a high-profile appearance before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2005 by then-RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman — with few prospects for doing so this year. When Steele speaks Tuesday night, he will look out on a sea of faces that continues to be overwhelmingly white.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

Steele said Mehlman and fellow former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie both worked hard to recruit black Republicans, but that the effort has flagged.

“When Ed Gillespie moved on after the 2006 election, there was very little follow-through on the program that he put in place,” he said.

Steele said the party needs to engage African-Americans more consistently.

“How do you do that when you don’t do anything between conventions? We need to build a relationship with the community that goes beyond the election cycle.”

Steele said the vast majority of the party’s political operatives appear to have largely written off the black vote with Obama’s nomination, which he said is a mistake.

“The question for the party is how do we respond going forward. Do we just say, ‘They nominated a black man for the presidency, we’re done,’ or do we step it up a notch?”

Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and Jackson’s presidential campaign manager, said Republican efforts to reach out to African-Americans had started to yield some fruit until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and are even more anemic with Obama’s nomination.

“You don’t have one black Republican running for a high-profile slot in the country, and you had a series of them running before,” Walters said.

“Katrina really broke the back of it,” Walters said. “That said in the loudest terms we heard in a long time that the Republican Party just doesn’t give a damn about you.”

Steele acknowledged that Katrina was a setback.

“There’s no doubt about it, Katrina is one of those moments in politics that leaves an indelible mark on the party that we have to deal with and learn from,” he said. Steele, who is eyeing a gubernatorial run in 2010, noted that the party has shown greater sensitivity this time around, as Hurricane Gustav threatens to spoil the GOP’s party.

Despite the party’s problems, Steele remains convinced that there are many African-Americans who would respond to “a very empowering message of opportunity and ownership.”

“What do we tell white communities, Hispanics, women? It’s the same message. It’s how you deliver it, it’s when you deliver it, it’s where you deliver it. We’re not delivering it.”

Some Republican operatives “think that black folks are going to pick it up by osmosis.”

There is a chance that some will listen, even this year, Steele said, despite the Obama phenomenon. “Everyone is drinking the Obama Kool-Aid, and it’s intoxicating, but tomorrow morning, it wears off,” he said.

In addition to Steele, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the first Indian-American governor in history, is slated to have a prominent role unless Hurricane Gustav interferes, as will Latinos, including Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.) and Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico, the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

A former Republican convention official said the party has to put the best face it can on a difficult situation in appealing to minorities.

“The party’s got to make the most of the few folks that they have that can make people identify with them,” the official said, acknowledging that the going has been especially tough in recruiting blacks to join the party.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying.

“Each party wants to broaden their appeal. … Folks want to see people they identify with. When you are trying to attract voters onto your team or into your party, you have to take the lead. They have to see someone that shares their values and they have to feel welcome.”

And the convention, with its wall-to-wall coverage for a week, is the best opportunity every four years to do that, the official said.