Politics

03.12.13

RNC Chair Courts Black Republicans With Brooklyn ‘Listening Session’

Reince Priebus ventured into deepest Brooklyn on Monday for a photo op and closed-door meeting at Pastor A.R. Bernard’s Christian Cultural Center. Caitlin Dickson on the plan to woo black voters.

Political reporters from all over New York City trekked deep into Brooklyn on Monday to catch a glimpse of the Republican Party’s African-American outreach in action. On the last leg of his post-election reflection tour, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was in the city to hear from members of the black community about what the GOP needs to do to win them over. On top of the intrigue provided by that dynamic, the gathering at a megachurch in East New York was to be hosted by Pastor A.R. Bernard, whom state GOP chairman Ed Cox has been urging to run for New York City mayor. This was going to be good.

Nestled between the public-housing projects and bus depots that line Brooklyn’s busy Flatlands Avenue, the Christian Cultural Center appears from behind a barrier of trees like some kind of oasis. Bernard’s behemoth of a church takes up 11.5 acres of land and boasts 37,000 members, and the pastor has become one of the city’s most influential players. As Cox noted while introducing Priebus at the outset of the meeting, Bernard was one of the people Michael Bloomberg consulted before his first mayoral run. “This is a place where the pastor doesn’t visit the politicians, the politicians come to the pastor,” Cox said.

On a stage set up in the CCC’s entryway, to the left of the massive aquarium and to the right of the nursery school, Bernard, Cox, and Priebus gave at least 20 members of the press the chance to ask a few questions before closing the door on the meeting.

The pastor spoke charismatically about how “change is not an event, it’s a process,” and stepped in smoothly to help a flailing Priebus field a question about how the party would handle the negative perception of African-Americans as exemplified by Mitt Romney’s now-infamous contention that 47 percent of the country relies on government handouts. Cox tried, admirably, to remind the audience of the GOP’s “great tradition of civil rights in the Republican Party” by noting “Brown vs. Board of Education, that was a Republican chief justice who wrote that opinion.” He then reeled off “Eisenhower and Little Rock, or Nixon and the desegregation of schools in the South,” which, though all true, sounded a little like someone who counters accusations of racism by claiming to have lots of black friends.

The chairman, for his part, emphasized repeatedly that the message he has received from meeting with minority groups across the country over the past few months has been: “If you’re going to get the order, you’ve got to show up and try to make the sale.” Priebus acknowledged the GOP’s failure to build relationships with minority voters in the past and said changing the demographics of a party that, for decades, has been largely white, would take some time and a lot of work. He cited the Republican position on business taxes and school choice as examples of values black voters share with the party, though he made no mention of faith or social issues, despite the setting. Long before reporters were shooed away so the real conversation could start, it was clear that anyone looking for specifics on the RNC’s plan to woo new members would have to wait until next week for the official report.

Cox tried, admirably, to remind the audience of the GOP’s “great tradition of civil rights in the Republican Party.”

Bernard, who declined to give any indication of whether he will run for mayor or even when he will decide, put together the guest list for the so-called listening session, a small group of black Republicans from various parts of the city and country, and prominent members of the church. While some, like North Carolina Republican national committeewoman Ada Fisher, proudly proclaimed their allegiance to the GOP, others appeared to have shown up because of their allegiance to the pastor, including The Wire actor Jamie Hector, who praised Obamacare at a fundraiser for the president last summer, and former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin.

Investment banker Kendrick Ashton said he’d gotten to know Bernard through political events and mutual black Republican friends. A lot of policies the party supports should resonate with the black community, the longtime Republican said, but the GOP will never get anywhere with minorities as long as it is perceived as indifferent or hostile to their interests.

“There have been a number of these sort of post-election, resetting-the-agenda sessions, and it went fine as far as those things go,” said Ashton on his way out of the meeting. “But it’s really about the substance of the follow-up: what actually takes place that’s real, that’s thoughtful, that’s organized, and that takes the party in a direction that addresses a broader set of constituents than currently exists.”