Back in 2010, Black Republicans were on the rise. A Black man was running the show at the Republican National Committee and the Congressional midterms ushered in two fresh Black Republican faces in the House of Representatives. While only representing 5 percent of the GOP’s electoral base, according to the Pew Research Center, Black Republicans were suddenly enjoying what they felt was a deserved spotlight.
Fast forward to 2013 and many Black Republicans now find themselves on the fringe, caught in the middle of a bruising intra-party war between party leaders and conservative activists — and uncertain if the party really appreciates them.
Enter aggressive talk about national party-wide autopsies and promises to build a GOP more reflective of demographic realities. The result: a self-effacing 100-page “autopsy” report filled with summaries and recommendations.
“This will change the way we communicate with voters -– to be in the communities permanently so we can build peer-to-peer relationships,” says Raffi Williams, the newly minted Deputy Communications Director for Youth and Minority Outreach, in a conversation with the Tribune. Raffi, age 24, is also part of what the RNC hopes will be perceived as an ambitious effort — he’s the son of FOX News analyst and controversial Black talking head Juan Williams. With Raffi, the expectation is that he can leverage close relationships with Black media as “he knows many prominent Black media figures like Roland Martin and others on a first name basis,” says a source who is very familiar with RNC hiring decisions.
“We will do a better job showing every voter what the Republican Party stands for – opportunity and economic prosperity for all and personal responsibility - unlike the Democratic Party, which has taken your vote but done nothing to help you,” rolls Raffi in an e-mail stream of talking points. “This will take time, but the chairman is committed to growing our party and we are busy executing already.”
The report has been praised and vilified by party insiders, activists and rivals. And while the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” as it’s formally called, touted more than 52,000 contacts made during the course of the listening tour, with surveys specifically tailored for women, Hispanics and Asian Americans, it’s not clear if there was any poll conducted on the political attitudes of African Americans.
“We’re going to have to wait and find out how effective this effort is going to be,” says Lenny McAllister, a Republican strategist and former Congressional candidate. “Sadly, this is a lesson that the GOP and RNC should have learned after 2006 - before the 2008 ‘Obama phenomenon’ occurred.”
“Without having strong ties to women voters, Black voters, urban voters, and young voters, the GOP was going to lose collectively over the past several national elections with the trend not having an end in sight,” adds McAllister.
One of the noisier critics of the effort is former RNC Chair Michael Steele, who made history as the first African American elected to lead the GOP in 2009. In a conversation with the Philadelphia Tribune, Steele called the “autopsy” and the RNC’s recent commitment of $10 million for national minority outreach “phony noise.”
“This is a lot of money spent on telling us something we already knew,” Steele tells the Tribune.
“There was always a need for a national conservation with Blacks, Latinos, women, gays. But, the level of defunding [during my chairmanship] told me everything about the level of their lack of seriousness.”
“You defunded many of these efforts after I left, and now you say we need a 50 state strategy? I did that,” claims Steele. “The real effort and work has to be placed on developing a new narrative within the Black community that is more reflective of their aspirations and their families.”
There is an abundance of bad blood playing out over the airwaves between Steele and current RNC Chair Reince Priebus. Much of the animus from Steele, who’s attempting to repair his name against what he views as attempts to unfairly discredit his legacy as former RNC Chair, stems from the close working relationship the two had only a few years ago. Priebus was Steele’s lieutenant back then, and Steele made sure his friend’s home state machine in Wisconsin was the beneficiary of considerable national party resources.
Sources close to Steele describe him as feeling personally hurt and “betrayed.” When Steele was Chair, Republicans retook the House majority, came within striking distance of the Senate majority, and racked up a wave of victories in state legislatures and gubernatorial races. During Priebus’ reign, the party lost its bid for the White House, made no new gains in the House and found itself losing key Senate races it should’ve won.
“The RNC took chances to go with the typical political numbers over the past two years and it cost them,” observes Republican strategist and former Congressional candidate Lenny McAllister. “Even in the states where Republicans hold the governor’s mansions and/or the general assemblies, the reception to their leadership has been lukewarm at best.”
That said, RNC insiders on Capitol Hill say Steele’s management style as Chair rubbed many in the party the wrong way.
“Steele came in all guns blazing,” contends a GOP insider who spoke on condition of anonymity because of their closeness to Steele and intimate knowledge of internal RNC decisions. “He was like: ‘I’m the H.N.I.C. He never really talked to folks about his plans or explained his reasoning. He would just make a decision and push it through.”
“Priebus, on the other hand, you’ve got to give him credit. He actually went on a listening tour before rolling out the report. This autopsy is a strong plan.”
While it might be strong on paper, the jury is still out on what it means for African Americans. It recommends the creation of a Growth and Opportunity Inclusion Council focused exclusively on minority outreach strategies, similar to efforts in the mid ‘90s – but, that didn’t bear much fruit back then. And the section in the report on African Americans takes up less than a page with no details on messaging - compared to the nearly three page section on Latinos. At one point, the report gaffes in a sentence about outreach to “Caribbean, Jamaican, and Haitian immigrants,” perhaps forgetting that Jamaicans and Haitians are actually within the larger Caribbean community.
Steele charges that the “bulk of that $10 million commitment won’t go into the Black community. The bulk will go into the Hispanic community.”
Williams contends that the effort is “a permanent grassroots campaign to improve our contact with voters and engage with all minority communities. The RNC is not interested in paying lip service to the Black community.”
But, Steele sees the GOP unable to release itself from what he calls a “one-size fits all mindset.”
“So, the argument goes that if you’re socially conservative: why aren’t you a Republican? I’ve heard this so many times with respect to African Americans. My response back to them is: have you talked to one? Have you had a conversation with them beyond talking about abortion and gay marriage? Because they are more than that and there are very deep and systemic issues that affect the Black community.”
Charles D. Ellison is a Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune.