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Published: Sunday, 12/5/2004

Ohio Republicans make strides in reaching out to black voters

BY KARAMAGI RUJUMBA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dwayne Clark served as coordinator for the Northwest Ohio African American Coalition for the Bush/Cheney campaign. Dwayne Clark served as coordinator for the Northwest Ohio African American Coalition for the Bush/Cheney campaign.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

After an election in which Ohio effectively re-elected President Bush, the state's black Republicans are excited about what they see as increased support for their party.

Despite claims by some political pundits that suggested blacks were disheartened by the outcome, GOP officials are particularly pleased with exit polling that indicated 16 percent of the state's African-Americans voted Republican, up from 7 percent in 2000.

A small but definite increase in black support for the GOP also was realized on the national level: 11 percent of African-Americans voted for the President this time compared to the 9 percent that voted for him in 2000.

Even in Lucas County, a longtime Democratic stronghold, GOP officials said, a silent but growing number of blacks are willing to listen to what the Republican Party has to offer.

"The black vote was very critical in getting Bush over the hump in Ohio," said Dwayne Clark, the coordinator for the Northwest Ohio African American Coalition for the Bush-Cheney campaign. He was one of approximately 40 black political strategists who gathered at Ohio Republican headquarters in Columbus last month for a strategy meeting to further whittle down the Democratic Party's stronghold on the black vote in Ohio.

Deborah Burstion-Donbraye, outreach director for the Ohio Republican Party, said she has been working to get more blacks voting Republican for more than 20 years. The tide is changing, she said. "We have made great strides in reaching out to the African-American community," she said, noting that it is a hard job to appeal to a community that traditionally and culturally has been alienated from the Republican Party.

"More and more blacks are now voting Republican because of key social issues like a ban on gay marriage, school choice, and the partial birth abortion issue," said Mrs. Burstion-Donbraye, who was one of the organizers who helped bring a group of African-American clergy from around the country to campaign for President Bush in Toledo a week before the Nov. 2 election.

The Republican Party was able to reach more black voters, Mrs. Burstion-Donbraye said, "by approaching them directly. We started having people talk to their neighbors, in churches, neighborhood barbershops, and beauty parlors."

That made all the difference in key parts of the state, she said.

When the dust settles and all the voting numbers have been officially tabulated and certified, people will realize that the GOP made inroads in attracting the African-American and Latino vote, said Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party.

"What we are seeing is a continuing trend among African-American voters who are willing to vote Republican," said Mr. Mauk, noting that the party has not yet established the exact number of black Republicans in the state because they have to vote in a party primary.

"But we are clearly gaining ground because our platform has placed a specific emphasis on social issues, which appeal to the black faith community," he said.

Dan Trevas, a spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, agreed that Republicans in Ohio made gains in the black vote in the presidential election. He said the GOP had a better message talking about certain social issues, but he refused to cede them ground on the notion that African-Americans are swinging to the right on the political spectrum.

"This could be a one-time occurrence," Mr. Trevas said.

When one considers the history of the civil rights movement, fair housing laws, and access to higher education, Mr. Trevas said Democrats have done a better job. That's why, he said, a majority of blacks traditionally have voted for them.

While he acknowledged that the Republican Party made gains in the black vote in Ohio, he credited it to a well-funded campaign with a candidate who stayed on message.

"Republicans like to talk about moral values, but how do they define them? How about poverty, health care, or an unjust war?" Mr. Trevas asked.

He acknowledged, however, that the Democratic Party will have its own soul-searching to do over the next four years.

"We need to figure out why John Kerry got a smaller number of votes in the African-American community," he said.

Mr. Clark believes he knows some of the reasons.

"In this election, the moral issues were clearly at the forefront in the black community because a lot of pastors and people in our community were wrestling with things like gay marriage and partial-birth abortion," he said.

At their Columbus meeting, the black conservatives celebrated their victory and reviewed some of the campaign strategies that they hope will spur a growing number of black Republican Party branches around the state.

With the exception of Columbus and Cincinnati, a majority of black conservatives in Ohio have not yet formed organized Republican Party branches. They exist in small networks in communities across the state.

In Lucas County, for example, Mr. Clark said he and his fellow conservatives maintain active e-mail and phone lists, which they use when they have issues to discuss.

Mrs. Burstion-Donbraye said these nonpublic methods of discussion are employed because there is somewhat of a social stigma attached to being a black conservative.

"I used to go to all-black events and people would shun me because I was a Republican," she said.

These days, Mrs. Burstion-Donbraye said, there is a change in mentality, especially among younger blacks because of a growing homeownership class.

"We're coming into the first generation of blacks who are passing on a considerable amount of wealth and they are now experiencing the burden of wealth taxation," she said.

But Mr. Clark, a longtime Toledo resident, said his conservative leanings are rooted in the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and in a strong work ethic and a principle of self-sustenance.

"Blacks in this country used to vote Republican until the [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt era, when there was a shift to the Democratic Party, which had to do with the economic climate of the time," he argued. "What is happening now is that blacks are starting to recognize that Democrats are just using them."

Clarence Walker, Jr., a Toledo native and a former official of the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, said he became a Republican in 1950 "because most of the Democrats in the South were racist."

Mr. Walker, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, said the Republican Party has done a poor job over the years of soliciting the black vote.

"For a long time, the Republican Party has ignored the black vote, and the Democratic Party has taken it for granted," he said.

If the Republican Party hopes to reach deeper into the black community, Mr. Walker said it is essential for the second term of the Bush administration to establish a solid job-growth base.

But Mr. Clark claimed that the Republican Party has a deeper reach into the African-American community than most people are willing to acknowledge. He recalled marching in a parade in downtown Toledo in October.

"I was the only black person who had a banner supporting President Bush, but I remember getting a lot of silent nods and black people giving me thumbs-up," he said.

That a small but steady number of blacks are willing to listen to Republican positions and conservative policies points to the failure of liberalism, said Lee Walker, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Chicago.

"Blacks have always been conservative. The problem is that the media accepts current black leadership opinions as representing all blacks, and that is not so," he said.

Lee Walker contends that there is a growing number of black voters who are beginning to identify with the Republican Party because "the current black leadership is out of the '60s.

"They became important on race issues of the civil rights movement, and that's what they're still selling," he said. "They preach a message of dependence on government programs instead of self-sustenance."

In the wake of Ronald Reagan's presidential victory in 1980, a number of black conservatives gathered at a conference at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where they hoped a new voice would emerge in the black community.

"The Fairmont Conference," as it came to be known, featured some prominent black conservatives - including syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell, and Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice.

"The goal of the conference was to eliminate the whole welfare mindset in the black community. We wanted to empower black people," said Mr. Walker, who attended the conference.

Bob Woodson, the founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a Washington-based grass-roots organization working in America's inner cities, said, "Blacks are beginning to realize that they are being marginalized. Democrats cannot win with the black vote anymore and the Republicans don't need them to win."

This position, Mr. Woodson argued, is going to force blacks to re-examine their traditional alignment with the Democratic Party.

"Young people want to have options, and they're not buying the Democratic platform," said Mr. Woodson, a former director of the National Urban League's Division of Justice. "We, as a black community, need to ask ourselves why black kids are failing in cities that have been run by blacks for more than 20 years," he said.

Mr. Woodson said the GOP did better in the black community in this election because many blacks were in tune with some of the issues on the Republican platform, including a ban on gay marriages, school choice, and Social Security reform.

"There is a sea change going on and it is sending waves through the political landscape," said Mr. Woodson. "My worst fear is that Republicans are going to pander to blacks like the Democrats have for a long time."

But nothing can dissuade Mr. Clark from his belief of the fact that it is the Republican Party that has his best interests at heart. And even though a small number of black Republicans can be found in Lucas County, he insists that the numbers will grow "when black Americans realize that their tax base is the source of a majority of these public assistance programs."

Having grown up in a small coal-mining town outside Uniontown, Pa., Mr. Clark said he knows what it means to be poor. Despite growing up poor, he said he was never interested in government handouts. He said he worked hard to make it on his own pursuing a career in human resource management.

"Why settle for a piece of the pie when you can have it all?" he said.

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at: krujumba@theblade.com or 419-724-6064.



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