Black, Proud, And Republican

More African Americans than ever are on the ballot

Teresa Doggett is everything Republican recruiters are looking for in a congressional candidate. A successful Austin (Tex.) businesswoman, she's smart, well versed on the issues, quick on her feet, and telegenic. But in one respect, Doggett is a most unconventional GOP contender: She's an African American.

Doggett's candidacy is no fluke. After decades of ignoring potential black candidates and writing off the black vote, the party of Lincoln is actively recruiting African American candidates as part of its goal of achieving enduring majority status on Capitol Hill. Already, a record 24 black Republicans are running for the House in 1996, up from the previous high of 22 set in 1994. "There's a real need to expand the [Republican] base," says one recruit, Denver attorney Joe Rogers, a moderate former Democrat who switched in '93. "To become the majority party, we have to represent a cross-section of people across the country."

These new recruits eschew the pro-government economic liberalism of many African American politicos. They all are economic conservatives, and their social views run the gamut from the moderation of retired General Colin L. Powell, to the staunch conservatism of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (During the Clarence Thomas hearings, Doggett's husband, John, suggested that Anita Hill may have been fantasizing about Thomas' behavior.) GOP scouts sought them out because they would appeal to conservative whites while making inroads among blacks. But polls suggest 1996 may be a tough year to run as a black conservative.

That doesn't worry Republican strategists, who are focused on long-term trends. Today, only 2% of self-described Republicans are black. But the GOP hopes an increase in black candidates will double the Republican vote among African Americans to 20% by 2020. The most likely Democratic defectors are upwardly mobile professionals concerned about job creation and regular churchgoers worried about a breakdown in family values. A shift of that magnitude--combined with the GOP's dominance among white men--could assure Republican hegemony for decades.

Black Republicans have only recently made real breakthroughs--and so far, they've won only in majority-white districts. In 1994, J.C. Watts Jr., a former college football hero and state utility commissioner, captured a previously Democratic Oklahoma House seat. He joined third-termer Gary A. Franks Connecticut, who had been the only black Republican in the House. Two years ago, Colorado Secretary of State Victoria Buckley became the first black Republican elected to a major statewide office west of the Mississippi.

TRAILBLAZERS. Some of the '96 recruits have already made history. Mississippi House candidate Danny Covington, a former parole officer and congressional aide, is the first black Republican to win a GOP nomination in the state since Reconstruction. A protege of Mississippi Republican Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, he defeated a white candidate in a primary contest. Covington, 40, has long been a trailblazer: He was the first black member of the University of Mississippi College Republicans and one of the first blacks to play in the Ole Miss Rebel Band.

Many of the recruits have business backgrounds--unlike most black Democratic lawmakers, who have roots in organized labor, law, or urban political machines--and are generally younger than black Democratic officeholders. Doggett's resume includes stints as an international banker, management consultant, and export-import company owner. Claudette Hayle, who is seeking to unseat Representative Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.), runs a Manhattan financial- consulting firm, the Hayle Group Ltd.

Not surprisingly, a common thread linking the candidates is an emphasis on economic development and self-help. "The welfare state as we know it is a bankrupt institution," says Colorado's Rogers. "The future is not about the next government program from Washington. It's about how to expand jobs and create businesses."

Despite the recruits' impressive credentials, they face daunting challenges this year. None is running in safe Republican districts. And unlike the GOP landslide in '94, which helped Watts triumph, the current political climate--particularly among black voters--is hostile to the GOP. A recent survey by the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies found that even black Republicans favor Clinton over GOP standard-bearer Bob Dole, 46% to 42%. And black Democrats favor Clinton by a nearly unanimous 92% to 2%.

A big reason: backlash against House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his Republican revolutionaries on Capitol Hill. Says Democratic pollster Ron Lester: "The aura that the Republicans are a mean-spirited, vituperative group is going to rub off [on the black Republicans] and really have a devastating impact on their chances of winning."

INDEPENDENCE. So some black candidates are staking out independent positions. "If being a Republican means cutting out school lunches, cutting off food stamps, or cutting nutrition for women, infants, and children, I'm not for that," says Covington. "I'm looking to take care of people who can't take care of themselves." Some of the candidates also plan to distance themselves from Dole's call to repeal affirmative action.

Because of the strong anti-Gingrich mood among African Americans, the best chances for black Republicans this fall may come in majority-white districts. The GOP strategy is to combine a solid Republican base with increased support from minorities. For the first time in some districts, Republicans are going to compete actively for black votes. "I understand the problems of the community," says Hayle, 41 and divorced, who had a child as a teenager.

Despite black Republicans' enthusiasm and hard work, neutral analysts say that these recruits are likely to run into a Democratic buzz saw this year. "I don't anticipate there being any more black Republicans joining Congress this time around," says independent political analyst David Bositis. Republican strategists concede that some setbacks are likely in the short term. But it's a risk they're willing to take to win more friends in the African American community farther down the road.

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