91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Can GOP Strides With Black Voters Survive The 2016 Campaign?

Activist Donna Walker-Brown speaks at an event for black voters sponsored by the Republican Party in Cleveland in January.
Nick Castele
Activist Donna Walker-Brown speaks at an event for black voters sponsored by the Republican Party in Cleveland in January.

While the Republican Party splits over which direction it should head, GOP officials say they've been quietly trying to turn the page with black voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida.

The effort is the result of the GOP's so-called "autopsy" report on the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney won 6 percent of the African-American vote, down from the 11 percent George W. Bush won in 2004. President Obama carried 93 percent of the black vote, helping him secure victory in key battleground states such as Ohio.

That report called for the Republican Party to build "a lasting relationship" with the African-American community. But the party's efforts, focused on Cleveland, where the convention will be held this summer, are still a work in progress — and risk an impasse with voters disturbed by the direction of the GOP presidential primary.

Building Bridges?

At a Republican celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Cleveland earlier this year, a big model of the Edmund Pettus Bridge surrounded the lectern. The bridge was the site of Bloody Sunday, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement when voting rights marchers were beaten up by state troopers outside Selma, Ala.

GOP organizers emphasized that bridge metaphor. Brian Barnes, co-director of African American Initiatives with the Ohio Republican Party, said he'd been given a charge by the party.

"And that charge was to utilize, or rebuild, the bridges that had been abandoned over the years," Barnes told the audience. "You see, the Republican Party had written off our community for some time."

"We need to build a party infrastructure that's in black communities all the time, on a year-round basis, and that's what we did," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus said in an interview.

In 2013, Priebus visited Cleveland as part of a "listening tour" in black communities. Last summer, the party bought ad time on radio stations geared toward black audiences.

The party hopes to shore up support with current and former black Republicans and find other black voters who could see eye to eye with the GOP on issues such as support for charter schools.

Priebus dismissed criticism from Democrats and civil rights groups that Republican-supported voter ID laws are making it harder for African-Americans to vote and cutting down on the party's support with black voters.

'Long-Term Effort'

Republicans say their outreach work is not just about the upcoming 2016 elections.

"This is a long-term effort to make sure that over time we're doing much better in black communities," Priebus said, "so that we don't end up in a situation like we've been over the last couple election cycles."

What I try to tell the conservatives here is that in some shape or form, you're going to have to distance yourself from Donald Trump's rhetoric.

Priebus spoke in 2015 at the Cleveland home of LaVerne Jones Gore, who has run for office as both a Republican and a Democrat. She said it was refreshing to hear talk about building a diverse Republican Party.

"It shouldn't have been, but it was," Jones Gore said, laughing. "It shouldn't have been refreshing, and it shouldn't have been new."

Jones Gore said she wants both parties to compete for black support, addressing such issues as schools, housing, unemployment and violence at the hands of police. She's surprised, she said, when campaigns ask her how they can best reach black voters.

"I'm just startled that so many people don't understand," she said. "OK, so, what does the African-American community want? We want what every American community wants."

The Presidential Campaign's Shadow

The Ohio Republican Party has two staffers working with black voters, and has also enlisted the help of local activists like Donna Walker-Brown, who heads a group called the Inner-City Republican Movement.

Walker-Brown said she's not trying to change the votes of staunch Democrats. Instead, she said, she hopes to reach voters who are frustrated with local Democratic leaders.

"I'm more spending time with people that are disgruntled Democrats, with this judicial system here in the city of Cleveland," Walker-Brown said, referring to fatal shootings by police in which officers were either acquitted or not indicted.

But Basheer Jones, a Cleveland activist and former Democratic city council candidate, said the way the 2016 campaign has played out so far is overshadowing Republicans' efforts.

Jones, who is Muslim, is troubled by presidential candidate Donald Trump's call for, in the campaign's words, "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." (Jones recently endorsed Hillary Clinton after attending several Republican events over the past year.)

"What I try to tell the conservatives here is that in some shape or form, you're going to have to distance yourself from Donald Trump rhetoric," Jones said. "Because people are listening to Donald Trump, and they are very upset about it, about what he's saying."

Ohio Republicans have tried to distance themselves from their party's presidential front-runner, expressing outrage over support Trump received from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. (Trump now says he disavowed Duke and the KKK.)

Orlando Watson, the RNC's communications director for black media, said he knows the party won't be able to "win 90 percent of the black vote overnight," and that improving the GOP's performance with African-American voters will take time and work.

"But we've put the pieces in place to be successful, more successful than we have in the past," Watson said.

Still, it will likely be an uphill slog. In 2012, most of Mitt Romney's support in the Cleveland area came from largely white communities. In some electoral precincts in predominantly black city neighborhoods, Romney didn't win a single vote.

Copyright 2016 The Statehouse News Bureau

Nick Castele