03.18.10

The GOP's New Race Card

Republicans have recruited their biggest roster of African-American candidates ever. John Avlon on how the GOP hopes to use this group of 32 to help close their diversity deficit.

There are 32 African-American Republicans running for Congress in the first midterm elections of the Obama administration. That is more than the entire number of black Republicans who have served in Congress in U.S. history.

This group met last night at a closed-to-the-press reception hosted by RNC Chairman Michael Steele at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., to kick off a two-day conference of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a two-year old organization committed to three principles: “We are devoted Christians, proud black Americans and active Republicans,” its chairman, Timothy F. Johnson, told me.

The fact that The Daily Beast got its hands on a list before the RNC official could compile one speaks to a larger problem.

Johnson, the vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, presented me with the full list of African-American Republican candidates running for Congress this year—a list that the RNC hasn’t even compiled internally yet. Some of the more notable candidates include a syndicated conservative columnist, an NFL football player turned priest, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, a former Fox News contributor, and a 31-year-old city councilman from Colorado.

The fact that The Daily Beast got its hands on a list before the RNC official could compile one speaks to a larger problem that Johnson and his colleagues, by their numbers, are trying to combat. There’s history there—albeit more than a century old. All the 23 African Americans who served in Congress before 1900 were Republicans. But since the civil-rights era, there have been only three African-American Republicans elected to Congress—Massachusetts' Ed Brooke, Connecticut's Gary Franks, and Oklahoma's JC Watts—while there have been 93 Democrats. In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent of the African-American vote. By 1980, only 10 percent voted for Reagan; against Barack Obama, John McCain was only able to win 4 percent of the black vote.

“Right after the 2008 election, I was frustrated at how the Republican Party had been described as the party of whites,” Johnson tells me. “Too many Americans perceive that black Americans all act alike, think alike and vote alike—and we don’t.”

The list of 32 candidates is diverse in terms of geography and background. And while some are certainly considered long shots, Johnson believes that black Republicans can help pick up at least five seats for the GOP this fall. Some of the more notable candidates include:

• Scripps Howard columnist Star Parker, author of the controversial Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can Do About It and a college-campus speaker for the Clare Boothe Luce Institute. She is running in California’s 37th District, which includes parts of Compton and Long Beach.

• Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, the only statewide elected African-American official in the Lone Star State, brought the house down at CPAC with a speech focused on energy independence (the Texas Railroad Commission helps regulate the oil and gas industry). He is running for the U.S. Senate, facing a likely primary against incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who lost her challenge to Texas Governor Rick Perry this month.

• The Reverend Michel Faulkner is running as a Republican in Harlem to replace the ethically embattled Rep. Charles Rangel. An inspirational speaker who has served as a pastor in northern Manhattan for the past 20 years, Faulkner is also known for having played a season for the hometown favorite New York Jets. He is campaigning on an anti-corruption, pro-growth platform, saying” I believe that the American Dream has been stolen by greed and corruption, causing hard-working, peace-loving people to become apathetic about democracy and, when that happens, democracy does not work.”

• Allen West is a highly decorated retired Army lieutenant colonel who resigned with full benefits after an investigation for misconduct in Iraq. His troops were accused of harshly interrogating an Iraqi police officer they believed had given information to insurgent forces that targeted U.S. soldiers. West was accused of firing a pistol near the man’s head. When asked if he would act the same way during a subsequent inquest, West defended his actions saying, “If it's about the lives of my men and their safety, I'd go through hell with a gasoline can.” He campaigned unsuccessfully for Florida’s 22nd District in 2008 and is trying again in 2010.

• Angela McGlowan is a former Fox News contributor and Capitol Hill staffer who authored the book Bamboozled. An elegant and polished presence, she spoke at the National Tea Party convention in Nashville in remarks that were carried by C-SPAN. She is running in her native Mississippi in the 1st Congressional District.

• Ryan Frazier is a highly regarded 31-year old city councilman from Aurora, Colorado, who is seen as a rising star among Western conservatives. He considered running for the U.S. Senate before switching his sights to the 7th Congressional District.

• Princella Smith is a 26 year old who won a 2004 MTV public-speaking contest that got her a speaking slot at that year’s Republican National Convention. She is running for an open seat in the 1st District of Arkansas, which is trending Republican.

These candidates—and many others on the list—have been embraced by local Republicans as powerful voices for conservative reform. The Frederick Douglass Foundation holds two core social conservative beliefs Johnson describes as “non-negotiable:” “the sanctity of life and the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman at one time.” On other issues, Johnson eschews labels. “On some issues you might be say I’m very conservative; on another issue I might be called moderate; on another I might be called liberal,” he says. “But I didn’t change because of those labels, my values are consistent.” (The 46-year-old Ph.D. and veteran also rejects the term African American: “I’ve never been to Africa—I’m an American who happens to be black.”)

Whatever you call them, this group of 32 address the elephant in the room in American politics—that the Tea Party protests and Republican caucuses have been largely devoid of the diversity which characterizes modern America. Their candidacies offer a degree of absolution for this uncomfortable fact. Johnson does not deny that some opposition to President Obama is motivated by racism, but his organization and its affiliated candidates have their sights set on a larger goal: bringing some much-needed ideological diversity to the black caucus as well as racial diversity to the Republican Party. It is less a reaction to President Obama than a step toward addressing the racial polarization of the two parties, and a welcome return toward recovering the lost legacy of the Party of Lincoln.

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.