Republican Party Could Change Image With an African American in Congress
Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams at the 2008 GOP Texas State Convention (williamsfortexas.com)
“Let’s talk about race,” wrote Michael Williams.
It was September 22, six days after former President Jimmy Carter suggested that race was one reason for the special political animosity toward President Barack Obama. Williams, the four-term Texas railroad commissioner–a job, he tells everyone, that has everything to do with energy policy and nothing to do with railroads–had already dinged Carter for the remarks. But in a long blog post at his campaign website, Williams went further.
“As an African-American son of the South,” wrote Williams, “I grew up in a time and place where you didn’t have to divine intent or deconstruct code words to find racism.” The crisis in America, he explained, was the proliferation of people calling one another “racists” for their position on Obama’s policies. “We have rid our institutions of government of the practice of discrimination; if only we could rid our political discourse of the ugliness that ensues when we ascribe discriminatory motive to statements with no obvious discriminatory aspect.”
There was a nuts-and-bolts political point to this. Williams is one of the nation’s very few African-American Republicans who hold statewide office. He’s running for the U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), a candidate for governor that year. If elected, he would be the only African-American member of the Senate, as the appointed and scandal-plagued Democrat Roland Burris is retiring next year. That means Williams is threatening to jump out of obscurity and into the position of a credible, high-profile critic of Obama.
“Williams is awesome,” said Erick Erickson, managing editor of RedState.com. “He’s a true rock star in the movement right now. People like him because of his beliefs, not because of his skin color, but there is definitely a bonus to having a black conservative who can be a voice of opposition to the first black President.” One example of Williams’ rock star status came in July, when he joined Liz Cheney as a speaker and guest at the RedState Gathering in Atlanta.Williams is only the most experienced and best-known African-American Republican candidate out of a pool of them mounting a serious bid sfor national office in 2010. In Colorado, 31-year-old city councilman Ryan Frazier is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Michael Bennet, a first-time candidate who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter (D-Co.) In Florida, Lt. Col. Allen West (Ret.) is making his second bid for a swing seat in Congress held by Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.). In western North Carolina, Ret. Col. Lou Huddleston is running against freshman Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.). Reached by TWI, all of them stressed that their campaigns had nothing to do with race. At the same time they pointed out if they got to Congress, the image of the GOP would change immediately, and any attempt to find racism in Obama’s critics would hit some sand traps.
“I don’t know if some of the criticisms President Obama has received have been about veiled prejudices,” Frazier told TWI while on the road to an event in Durango, Col., a small city with a black population of less than one percent. “But when it comes to me, Democrats are not going to be able to use some of those same tactics and rhetoric–which have actually tended to work for them–accusing me of disagreeing with the president because of his race. I’m not one of those Republicans sitting around, questioning the president’s citizenship.”
While Republican strategists have spun some outbreaks of racial dialogue to their advantage–virtually all of them feel that Jimmy Carter’s comments reflected poorly on the former president, not on Republicans–there is a stark awareness that the party’s lack of African-American faces is a problem when opposing the first African-American president. Despite the elevation of RNC Chairman Michael Steele, not many Republicans spoke highly of his attempts to turn racial controversies against the Democrats, such as his suggestion that the White House may have pressured Gov. David Paterson (D-N.Y.) to leave the 2010 campaign because he’s black. As the party has pointed to anti-tax Tea Parties for proof of political momentum, the lack of more African-American spokespeople has been notable.
“It’s hard for a white liberal to call black a Republican a racist,” said Richard Ivory, the editor of HipHopRepublican.com.
Since former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) retired in 2002, the party has had no African-American representation in Congress, and that’s led to some missed opportunities. In 2005, when then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean joked that Republicans couldn’t match the diversity of a Democratic meeting unless they invited “the hotel staff,” the semi-official Republican response to Dean came from a decidedly low-profile group of eight black Republicans in Mississippi.
In 2006, when the party ran credible African-American candidates in Ohio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, GOP strategists gleefully turned the race card over on Democrats. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), for example, was pilloried by Republicans for saying then-Senate candidate, now RNC Chairman Michael Steele had followed his party “slavishly.” But in a bad year for the party, its top-tier African-American candidates were wiped out.
Black Republicans have no problem portraying Democrats as especially interested in bringing them down. Herman Cain, a 2004 U.S. Senate candidate in Georgia–who lost the primary to now-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.)–has claimed that Democrats want him and fellow black Republicans to “stay on the plantation.” The National Black Republican Association called the January 2009 election of Steele “the Democrats’ worst nightmare,” an accurate reflection of the reason some Republican National Committee members gave Steele a shot at the job. In an interview with TWI, Ken Blackwell–who has remained a sought-after conservative speaker since losing a 2006 race for governor of Ohio–argued that Democrats targeted him early to prevent the rise of a powerful black Republican voice.
“When I was re-elected as secretary of state, I got 42 percent of the African-American vote,” Blackwell reminisced. “That just worried the Democrat strategists and leaders. So I got targeted. If I had been running for another term as secretary of state, they wouldn’t have wasted the time on me. But a conservative, African-American governor? That’s problematic.”
Some of the party’s 2010 hopefuls have hurdles to overcome within the party. Neither Williams nor Frazier is the favorite in his respective Senate race. Despite polls showing that either of them would be likely to win their general elections, Williams trails either Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Tex.) and Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Tex.), and Frazier trails former Lt. Jane Norton (R-Co.), who entered the race only last month. “Michael Williams is a black candidate for the U.S. Senate in Texas,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “How much of a chance would I give him of surviving a runoff with Dewhurst or Abbott? None.”
The prospects are better for Huddleston and West. Privately, Republican strategists suggested that they will not face serious primary challenges, and are strong contenders for support from the National Republican Campaign Committee if they post strong fundraising numbers of their own. West raised more than $550,000 in 2008 for his first race, with what he characterized as “nothing” from the state or national parties, and pulled 45 percent of the vote in a district that gave 48 percent to George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008. West relished the idea of arriving in Washington and demanding membership in the Congressional Black Caucus.
“They don’t want that to be out there,” West told TWI. “They don’t want to see empowerment. They want to have entitlement. You undercut the people like the Jesse Jacksons, the James Clyburns, the Maxine Waterses. You know–the John Conyerses, the Diane Watsons. I am their worst nightmare and I understand that. I welcome them to come and engage me on that level.”
Huddleston, who ran and lost a campaign for the North Carolina legislature last year, may be running in a more favorable district. While Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) easily won the seat in 2008, he was aided by a massive turnout of African-American voters who make up 28 percent of the district. Huddleston said he’d had eyeball-to-eyeball conversations with black voters who split their ballots for Obama, Kissell and him. He also hinted at a possible endorsement from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom Huddleston called a “mentor” in his military career.
“He and I have communicated,” said Huddleston. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Alone among the Republican candidates that TWI spoke to, Huddleston balked at the idea of becoming a high-profile, go-to spokesman on racial flare-ups if he got to Congress. Democrats keep their base “stoked” when they “play the race card,” he said. “I will not be a token for anybody. If I’m on your team, you let me on because I can play the position. And if you’re a reporter and you ask me to comment on what Jimmy Carter said about race, I will give you my time. I’ll have the expectation that you come back to me to talk about national security, or about trade, or about one of the issues I actually am running on.”
According to Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist whose book “Wrong on Race” argued that Republicans should be able to capitalize on Democrats’ weak record on racial progress, Huddleston might have the clearest view of how a black Republican could take advantage of the political scene.
“Not to be crude,” said Bartlett but I think [J.C.] Watts and [former Rep. Gary] Franks (R-Conn.) were always viewed as tokens in the black community. Their election led neither to an increase in voting for Republicans by blacks nor any increased effort by Republicans to attract black votes.”