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New Faces of 1996 Politics: Black Conservatives

Question : What do Anthony Lowe, the Deputy Prosecuting Attorney of King County, Washington who is running for State Insurance Commissioner, Teresa Doggett, the international banker running for Congress from Austin, Texas and Danny Covington of Vicksburg, Mississippi, another Congressional hopeful, have in common?
Answer: they all are conservative black Republicans who are likely to seek support from BAMPAC–“Black America’s Political Action Committee.” Expecting to raise over $1 million this year from a membership list of 37,000, BAMPAC is cited by Hill Magazine in Washington, D.C. as the fastest growing new political action committee in the country. Its founder was the principled and charismatic former Reagan Administration Ambassador, Alan Keyes, who ran for president in the GOP primaries last spring.

A few years ago, black Republican candidates were rarities, especially in predominantly white districts. They did run in black districts, but were considered little more than sacrificial lambs. Therefore, when 11 blacks ran for Congress on the GOP line in 1990, most observers considered the development significant. Six years later there are at least 24 black GOP Congressional candidates–now including two incumbents, Gary A.Franks of Connecticut and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. As happened to blacks on the Democratic ticket in the ’70’s, there suddenly are black Republicans showing up in state offices, such as Secretary of State Victoria Buckley of Colorado and Ohio State Treasurer J. Kenneth Blackwell.

Moreover, more Republican blacks are contesting Democrats in predominately black areas. Mississippi’s Danny Covington, a former parole officer and Congressional aide with a conservative social message, is the first black to win a Republican primary in that state since Reconstruction days, over a century ago. The state’s US Senators, both Republicans, strongly supported Covington against a white primary challenger.

Overall, the Repbublican party could only go up in terms of black support. Just 10 percent identify today with the party of Lincoln. But there are ocassional races where GOP candidates receive up to 40 percent black support, and that edge often proves decisive.

The first black US Senator since Reconstruction, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in the 1970’s, was a Repbublican–one of the rarities. But Brooke was a liberal Republican, as were many of the appointed officials advanced by Republican presidents until Reagan. They not only backed the civil rights gains of the ’60’s–as did most Republican then, and almost all by the next decade–but also the more controversial programs, such as racial set-asides and quotas. Their closest prominent counterpart today would be Gen. Colin Powell, who supports “affirmative action,” while opposing “preferences,” a fine distinction.

In any case, most newer black Republican elective officials are more conservative. In this they are closest to the top black legal official in the land, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. They like to point out that while the Republican party, as such, is not popular among blacks, there are strong conservative currents running in the overall black electorate.

A 1992 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a generally liberal think tank, confirms that more blacks call themselves conservative than liberal (33 percent to 29 percent). A more recent poll by the center provides a fascinating breakdown of these averages, showing that younger black voters, 18-25, were nearly twice as likely to identify with the Republicans as were older ones (18 percent versus 8 percent) and to call themselves conservatives (34 percent versus 22 percent).

Overall, black voters supported the death penalty 58 percent to 42 percent, backed a two year limit on welfare by 58 percent also, by nearly 75 percent backed mandatory sentences for drug dealers, and by 61 percent agreed that black leaders were too quick to cite racism as an excuse for black crime.

The Gallup survey, similarly, found 53 percent disapproval of mandatory busing among black voters, 48 percent pro-life sentiment and 77 percent opposition to preferential treatment to make up for past discrimination. Some 92 percent of blacks believe in God, a figure higher than for the population as a whole (about 85 percent).

Of course, these surveys do not predict voter behavior and, moreover, wording (for example, “affirmative action” versus “preferential treatment”) can change poll outcomes for all groups in society. Just as Southern whites agreed with Republicans in such polls for many years and still voted overwhelmingly Democratic, there is little sign yet of political reallignment among black voters nationally.

Yet it could come; and even a rise to 20 or 30 percent Republican support would transform the political landscape. Likewise, an increase of black Republicans in Congress from two to, say, six, effectively would end the monolithic Democratic support the media and other observers expect of black Americans. It also might end the recent tendency of the Democratic party to take black voters for granted.

However, white Republicans, too, should pay close attention to what black members of their party are telling them. The old government solutions to social and economic problems have failed, but, as General Powell stated at the GOP convention, there is still a demand for solutions of some kind. Economic opportunity is crucial. Within the party, personal or political slights are as unwelcome as ever. Unconscious white discrimination burns the hearts of conservative as well as liberal blacks.

It’s just that black conservatives, stressing family, entrepreneurism and community self-help, believe they have found a better way of moving forward.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.