Changing the Face of the Republican Party

Kathryn Lopez

2/6/2006 8:27:22 AM - Kathryn Lopez

Black Republicans are making a run for a number of big elections this year. In Maryland, Michael Steele wants retiring Democrat Paul Sarbanes' Senate seat. Keith Butler is also running for Senate, from Michigan. Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star, wants to be governor of the Keystone State. Randy Daniels would like to be governor of New York. And gunning for governor in a key presidential electoral state there is the great black hope for the Republican Party, Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

The "great black hope" is probably the last phrase Blackwell would use to describe himself (I, myself, cringed while writing it). A phrase that cheapens, not to mention ghettoizes; in truth, Ken Blackwell is a great hope for us all.

In a profile piece in the winter issue of "City Journal," contributing editor Steven Malanga calls Blackwell "Ronald Reagan's Unlikely Heir." Malanga writes, "Ken Blackwell has so many people worried because he represents a new political calculus with the power to shake up American politics."

Who can have a power like that, you ask? "For Blackwell is a fiscal and cultural conservative ... who happens to be black with the proven power to attract votes from across a startlingly wide spectrum of the electorate." Malanga continues, "Born in the projects of Cincinnati to a meat-packer who preached the work ethic and a nurse who read to him from the bible every evening, Blackwell has rejected the victimology of many black activists and opted for a different path, championing school choice, opposing abortion and advocating low taxes as a road to prosperity. The 57-year-old is equally comfortable preaching that platform to the black urban voters of Cincinnati as to the white German-Americans in Ohio's rural counties or to the state's business community."

And Blackwell could win -- having taken an early pre-Republican primary lead (currently at around ten points) and garnering the national attention needed to gain support from his pears.

Ward Connerly, a black political powerhouse, himself, and successful crusader against racial and gender quotas in education, tells me, "a Blackwell victory would be very significant because it would illustrate that being a Republican is not the 'kiss of death' for a 'black' aspirant for higher office."

It's a message that the "party of Lincoln" has increasingly been trying to send. Republican outreach efforts are credited with increasing President Bush's share of the black vote from eight percent in 2000 to about 12 in 2004. There are miles to go yet (obviously), but it's progress. And it's something that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is devoted to -- increasing black Americans' identification with the Republican party -- speaking about it passionately both privately and publicly.

Addressing an NAACP audience last fall, Mehlman said, "If you give us a chance, we'll give you a choice." That's good stuff we all go for, but Mehlman doesn't have the power that Ken Blackwell does to pull it off. In one electoral triumph, Blackwell could achieve what no task force, outreach program or powerful speech ever will -- making it "safe" for blacks to routinely vote Republican instead of being looked at as anomalies.

And Blackwell would do it in the healthiest way possible -- without ever playing up race. "Blackwell is betting," Malanga writes, "that many black Americans may be ready for a candidate, like him, who doesn't preach victimology and doesn't see the world almost entirely in racial terms. Blackwell is a post-racial, post-civil rights campaigner; race rarely enters into his speeches and is barely a part of his political platform. And even when Blackwell does address racial issues -- the achievement gap between black and white students, for instance -- it's to tout free-market solutions like vouchers and charter schools." Which is why, Blackwell could prove to be "Jesse Jackson's worst nightmare."