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Dana Forde Headshot

The Black Vote and the Republican Party

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MIA LOVE MITT ROMNEY
AP

At first, second, and third glance Marc Morgan, a Washington, D.C. fundraising consultant, seems like the antithesis of the Republican Party.

He is a strong proponent of green jobs, green practices and environmental issues.

He is a strategist for HIV and AIDS initiatives.

And he is an openly gay black American.

But the Republican Party, Morgan said, is not a narrow one.

"This is still a party that promotes balance -- that promotes fiscal responsibility," added Morgan who ran unopposed in November for a commissioner seat on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Washington, D.C. "Those are quite honestly values that African American communities support."

Morgan represents a voting bloc, some say, has been largely ignored in recent pre- and post-election discussions. Just 5 percent of registered Republican voters are black, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. This is a 1 percent increase since 2008: the year Barack Obama became the first African American president of the United States.

Most post-election discussions have centered on Republicans' determination to gain a coalition of Latino voters. Yes, the Democratic Party has a long history of benefiting from the bulk of black votes. But some believe that a new brand of Republicanism -- represented by, among others, Mia Love, Allen West and Herman Cain -- has encouraged more black voters to take a fresh look at the Republican Party. This trend, many believe, should not be overlooked.

Like Morgan, some say that the Republican Party's aptitude for refining and delivering its fiscal and economic messages will continue to help its supporters make inroads within communities of color.

"We live in a country where you have the right to join any political party you want," said Edward Cousar, executive director of the Black Republican Political Action Committee. "I think that people are realizing that the Democratic Party has not fulfilled all of the promises it has made, including the president."

The adoption of the Republican platform of smaller government and fewer restrictions on business operations would provide more jobs in the long run, said Cousar.

"I respect the president as a person. I just believe that the Democrats have a different philosophy on government," he added.

Cousar, who is also second vice chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina, said he's been involved in party politics for more than 20 years.

Black Republicans are being undercounted and underrepresented in political discussions, he believes.

"I think you will see more black Americans identifying with the Republican Party," Cousar said, while adding that more voters of colors should be engaged in the political process that civil rights leaders of the 1950s, 60s and 70s fought for.

"They didn't fight for the right to vote Democrat. It was the right to vote," he said.

Chris Fields -- who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Keith Ellison in Minnesota's fifth district -- described the new brand of black Republicanism represented by Love and West as an "awakening." He added that "Black Republicans are not monolithic."

A variety of Republican platforms -- including hawk, socially conservative, and libertarian leaning conservatives -- means there are a lot of options for voters of color to choose from, Fields said.

But Democratic legislatures continue to alienate communities of color by "putting up roadblocks to small business," he added.

The argument over who is better for business has further polarized the nation and at times has overwhelmed the political discussion. But for many black Republicans, Democrats simply don't understand the market in a way that would facilitate meaningful economic growth and assist small businesses in a long-term fashion.

"So that small guy gets squashed and we are the small guy in business right now," said Fields, who contends black business owners are particularly vulnerable to measures advocated by Democrats. "We are being told don't worry be happy because we have a black president (and) because we have more black legislatures?... There are some black people who just don't buy that. There's a fine line between supporting your elected officials and holding them accountable... but we should also hold them accountable."

Accountability, said Fields, is also closely related to the discussion of government entitlement programs such as welfare and Medicaid.

Fields -- who is half Puerto Rican and has a white stepfather -- had hoped to help develop tools that measure their effectiveness as an elected official.

"It is about our ability to take care of the working poor and make sure that in America we have an escalator where you can start on the bottom that's ok but you have to be able to go up," he said.

Fields had also hoped to address the gaps in unemployment and achievement levels between white and black workers and students in his state of Minnesota. The state's unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in Nov. 2008: the month then-Senator Obama was elected president, according to the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since then Minnesota's unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, below the national average.

With the recorded drop in unemployment, it would appear that the state of Minnesota is headed in the right direction. But Fields is still not convinced. Black workers, he said, are still disproportionately affected by the Great Recession. And Democrats have not made any strides in that department, Fields added.

"If we allow these gaps to continue and persist we will not have an economy capable of sustaining itself," he said. "This is not just a black problem... this is an everybody problem."

Still not everyone is convinced that Republicans have done enough to reach out to black voters in any meaningful way.

Bronx resident Yvonne Murphy, an African American Democrat, switched from the Independent to the Democratic ticket more than a decade ago.

She voted for Democrats on Election Day because she views the Democratic platform as less divisive than the one advocated by Republicans.

"For the poor black American or the poor Latino out here suffering having to work two, three jobs having to make the rent -- they don't see the future that the Republicans see," said Murphy, who added that the president was dealt a bad hand in that he inherited a struggling economy when he took office. She believes it will take him more than four years to fix the country's myriad of issues.

"The way things are going, you really can't afford to be a Republican," Murphy said.

Republicans have made a series of missteps in recent months that have further alienated voters of color like Murphy.

For example, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney credited President Obama's "extraordinary financial gifts" to African Americans and Hispanics for helping to pull him over the finish line. Many members of the so-called birther movement who have claimed ties to the Republican Party still want additional documentation that proves Obama's birthplace. While others -- most notably real estate mogul Donald Trump -- are calling on the president to provide proof that he attended and graduated from Harvard and Columbia universities: two Ivy League institutions.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin recently referred to President Obama's actions following the United States consulate attack in Libya as a "shuck and jive" response. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has repeatedly referred to President Obama as the "food stamp president."

These comments, some black voters say, are being made as part of a two-part agenda: to paint the president as an illegitimate, underserving, and ill-suited commander-in-chief and to inflame racial attitudes and appeal to the Republican base by promoting stereotypes of black people.

And in a widely distributed videotaped conversation with donors, Mitt Romney claimed 47 percent of voters were "victims" who will "never take responsibility for their own lives." Many believed this comment connects to earlier comments Romney made -- one in which he said he wasn't "worried about the poor."

In a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse, these comments are not only damaging to American social cohesion but also symbolize the slow deterioration of the existing Republican platform, some experts say.

"This is not a country where white people are going to be the overwhelming majority that they have been. Until Republicans start doing better among minority groups, they are going to face a difficult period at the polls -- and an increasingly difficult period," said Christopher Achen, a professor of politics at Princeton University. "They've got to change if they want to win."

Some of Achen's undergraduate students who are Republicans of color recognize this too, he said, and some have plans to run for political office in efforts to turn things around.

Recent voter suppression efforts, he added, may do more long-term harm for the Republican Party than good.

The Republican fraction of the black vote has been very small for many years. During the 1920s, black people voted heavily for Republican interests but President Franklin Roosevelt's administration started to more aggressively target African American votes during the 1930s, Achen said.

But many well-known black Republicans -- Allen West, for example -- contend that the Democratic Party has hijacked the discussion of civil rights and have been disingenuous in presenting its role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s to the American people.

"It is true that in the 1960s northern Republican votes for civil rights measures were quite common... (Allen) West is certainly right that Republicans played a helpful role during that time," Achen said. "But they (Republicans) by and large were not the leadership."

Instead Democrats -- including members of the Kennedy family and President Lyndon Johnson, among others -- played more active roles in introducing legislation that would benefit communities of color, Achen said.

Others believe that Democratic leaders should continue to explain the connection between the country's economic health and the health care system. Maybe this would help Democrats broaden their own economic message.

The Affordable Health Care Act put forth by Democrats, for example, guarantees health care coverage beyond the workplace. Signed into law by President Obama in March 2010, this legislation equates health security with economic security, said Judith Feder, a Georgetown University public policy professor.

"It (Affordable Health Care Act) actually makes Americans more secure... because their health insurance no longer depends on their job," said Feder who is a national expert in health policy.

"I do think that health care has always been in part an economic message for Democrats.... Affordable health care is a fundamental part of Americans' economic security," she added.

The discussion surrounding universal health care has further polarized the two parties. Many Republicans contend the country simply cannot afford most of the measures included in the Affordable Health Care Act. Other Republicans believe the legislation represents yet another government program set for failure. But this legislation in particular, they believe, is more extreme in scope.

It is clear the health care debate, among others, will continue well into the next election season.

Meanwhile, others within the Republican Party concede that its members must make changes to appeal to a broader group of voters in the future.

"I think what has happened is that we had a Republican Party that went very far to the right and in my opinion in order for the Republican Party to be viable again we need to come to the middle. We need Republicans like me," said Marc Morgan. "The times are changing and the party must change with it."

More of Dana's work can be seen here and here.