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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

GOP 's Growing Diversity: Gains 2 Black Congressmembers

This GOP Not For Whites Only

What's the most overlooked, under appreciated story from the midterm elections? My nominee would be the surprising new racial and ethnic diversity of Republican congressional and gubernatorial winners.

Republican contenders-of-color had a history-making night, helping undermine the notion that the GOP is becoming a whites-only party. It's hard to say how much help the new diversity will be in winning more nonwhite voters. But it already appears to be helping party leaders get more comfortable with an increasingly multiracial, multicultural voting population.

For example, South Carolina's Tim Scott and Florida's Allen West became the first African-American Republicans sent to Congress from their states in more than a century. They'll be the first black Republicans in the House or Senate since Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retired in 2003.

Cuban-American Marco Rubio of Florida will become the Senate's only Hispanic Republican since Florida's Mel Martinez retired last year.

In the House, Idaho's Raul Labrador, Florida's David Rivera, Texas' Bill Flores and Francisco Canseco, and Washington state's Jaime Herrera will join re-elected Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart for a record total of eight Republican Latinos in both chambers, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Among governors, Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico is the nation's first Latina governor-elect.

Republican Nikki Haley became South Carolina's first female governor and the nation's second Indian-American governor after Louisiana's Bobbie Jindal, also a Republican.

What have we learned? For one thing, since Rubio, West, Scott and Haley, among other conservative candidates-of-color, were endorsed by Sarah Palin and backed by the tea party movement, tea partiers earn significant credit against the charge that they're a whites-only movement.

For another, it's ironic that only six months ago I was writing about how there were more black Republicans running for Congress than there had been since Reconstruction, partly because they were encouraged by the long-shot victory of Democrat Barack Obama. If he could do it, others figured, so can I.

A dozen black Republican congressional nominees made it to the general election. Two won. Both come from predominately white districts, which follows another post-1960s tradition. The parties have become so racially polarized since the civil rights/white backlash era that black Republicans in Congress have been elected by mostly white votes.

But there, it's important to note, the similarities between the House's two new black Republicans pretty much end. Scott, 45, a businessman and former state legislator, gained national notice by beating Paul Thurmond - son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist - to win the GOP primary in June, tantamount to victory in his conservative district. Despite his tea party endorsements, he campaigned in the style of a center-right moderate - like a friendly businessman looking to make a sale.

West, by contrast, set out to shock and awe. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, 49, he delighted the far right by calling out Obama to "be a man" and declaring "institutional racism is dead." He had become a national conservative hero after he was disciplined for firing a weapon near the head of a detainee he was interrogating in Iraq for information about explosive devices. "If it's about the lives of my men and their safety," he famously told his defense attorney, "I'd go through hell with a gasoline can."

Quotes like that tell me West, in particular, will be fun for Capitol Hill reporters to cover. He also represents the tiger that establishment Republican leaders have by the tail as they try to please tea party members of all colors. As the party is wooing moderate swing voters, their right wing expects heavy payback for their help in bringing conservative voters to the polls.

Things were less complicated for Republican leaders when they could be simply the Party of No. Now they may have to learn, as Obama has, how to tell their various factions, "Not yet."

Clarence Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist. Reach him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207 or

Black & Republican And Back In Congress

For the first time in over a decade, the incoming class of Congress will include two Black Republicans, both of whom rode the Tea Party wave to victory while playing down their race.

One of them, Allen West, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, prevailed in a tough fight in a South Florida district. The other, Tim Scott, is the first black Republican to be elected to the House of Representatives from South Carolina in over a century. They will be the first black Republicans in Congress since J. C. Watts of Oklahoma retired in 2003.

“I did not want to run as a black candidate; I did not want to run as a military candidate,” Mr. West said in a telephone interview. “I wanted to run as an American candidate and win the respect of the people.”

While the number of African-Americans in Congress has steadily increased since the civil rights era, black Republicans have been nearly as rare as quetzal birds.

For Mr. Watts, a former college quarterback, the job came with a significant spotlight and significant challenges — as an African-American he was a minority among Republicans, and as a Republican he was a minority among blacks on Capitol Hill. While his time in office overlapped the tenure of another black Republican, Gary A. Franks, who represented a Connecticut district from 1991 until 1997, Mr. Watts is in the one who came to represent the perks and travails of his position.

“I was smart enough to not allow Republicans to compel me to play the role of the ‘black Republican,’ ” Mr. Watts said in a telephone interview. “But I never felt compelled to ignore real issues of the black community either.”

He did not join the Congressional Black Caucus because it was dominated by Democrats, he said, a decision that Mr. West said was a mistake that he would not repeat.

“I think you need to have competing voices in that body,” Mr. West said. “I think that is important.” (Mr. Scott has not decided if he will join the caucus.)

African-Americans found a place in Congress in the latter decades of the 19th century, particularly during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when 16 black men served, all of them Republicans. The first was Hiram R. Revels, of Mississippi, who was in the Senate from 1870 to 1871. Joseph H. Rainey from South Carolina was the first black member of the House, serving from 1870 to 1879, according to Congressional Quarterly’s “Guide to U.S. Elections.”

There were no blacks in Congress from 1900 to 1929, but since then, their numbers have increased bit by bit, especially after the civil rights movement, this time with Democrats leading the way, a reflection of the changed dynamics of each party and the shifts of power in state legislatures. Of all the blacks ever to serve in Congress, 98 have been Democrats and 27 have been Republicans; there are 42 African-American members in the current lame-duck Congress.

The yield of black Republican winners on Tuesday was small considering that 32 African-Americans ran in Republican primaries this year. “If two is the highest number of black Republicans to win since Reconstruction, it’s hard to call that a breakthrough,” said Tavis Smiley, a prominent talk show host who has repeatedly criticized Republicans as not doing enough to court black voters.

Mr. Scott and Mr. West represent the more conservative wing of their party — each had some Tea Party backing, including the support of Sarah Palin — but followed different paths to Congress.

Mr. Scott, who was born in North Charleston, S.C., grew up poor with a single mother until a Chick-fil-A franchise owner took him on as a protégé, he said, and imbued him with conservative principles. “Coming from a single-parent household and almost flunking out of high school,” Mr. Scott said, “my hope is I will take that experience and help people bring out the best that they can be.”

Mr. Scott, 45, was elected to the Charleston County Council in 1995 and the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2008. In the Congressional primary, this year he defeated both Carroll Campbell III, the son of a former South Carolina governor, and, in a runoff, Paul Thurmond, the son of former Senator Strom Thurmond, to take the seat in the First Congressional District, which hugs the South Carolina coast.

Mr. West, 49, has never held public office. Born and raised in a military family in Atlanta, he rose to battalion commander in Iraq. His 22-year military career came to an end during the war when he was relieved of his command after using a gun to coerce information from an Iraqi police officer during an interrogation. After retiring from the military in 2004, he moved to Florida, taught high school for a year and then went to Afghanistan as an adviser to the Afghan army.

John Thrasher, the chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said Mr. West won the battle to represent the 22nd Congressional District, which includes the coast of South Florida, because “he’s a great American patriot that resonated with people.”

“His opponent was Pelosi-Obama liberal,” Mr. Thrasher added, “and Allen gave them a different understanding of how government could be.”

Mr. West said he was more surprised that he won as a Republican in a district carried by the Democratic presidential nominee three elections in a row than as an African-American in a district with a white majority. But, he added, “I am honored to be first black Republican congressman from the state of Florida since Reconstruction. There is a historic aspect of it.”

GOP's 2010 Slate Shows Growing Diversity

One of the under-reported stories of this election cycle is the new diversity of GOP nominees -- from African-American congressional candidates to Hispanic and Indian-American gubernatorial candidates.

The party's 2010 slate marks a step toward fulfilling the promise of the Party of Lincoln -- which championed the end of slavery -- and undercuts reflexive attempts by some on the far-left to portray the Republican surge as fueled by racism.

For starters, there are 14 African-American GOP congressional nominees this year. By comparison, 2008 saw roughly half as many black GOP nominees -- and none won. Judging by the polls, at least three of this year's African-American candidates look likely to win: South Carolina's Tim Scott, Colorado's Ryan Frazier and Florida's Allen West.

That would total in one year the number of African-American Republicans elected to Congress since the civil rights era. Granted, it's still a far cry from the numbers on the Democratic side -- there are 48 African-American Democratic nominees this year -- but it's a significant step in the right direction.

It's hard to imagine today, but all 23 African-Americans who served in Congress before 1900 were Republicans -- they would not have dreamed of being anything but members of the Party of Lincoln, the party that advanced African-Americans after the Civil War while the states of the former Confederacy remained dominated by the Democratic Party. That loyalty, forged in war, continued for almost a century.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent of the African-American vote, and in 1966, the first African-American popularly elected to the senate was a Republican from Massachusetts, the legendary Ed Brooke.

But then came the Southern Strategy and the formerly solid, conservative Democratic south realigned Republican after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Southern conservatives became Republicans, though they remained consistent in their philosophic commitment to states rights and traditional values. African-Americans took the hint.

By 1980, only 12 percent of African-Americans voted for Reagan. John McCain was only able to win 4 percent of the black vote against Barack Obama.

The nomination and likely election of Tim Scott in the first district of South Carolina captures this year's election shift in historic terms: He defeated one time Dixiecrat and segregationist Strom Thurmond's son to win the primary to represent the district that fired on Fort Sumter.

But the biggest shifts may be in the governor races, where Nevada's Brian Sandoval and New Mexico's Susana Martinez are poised to win the GOP two Hispanic governors in the Southwest. These candidates have far broader appeal than, for example, Sharron Angle, who is running on the same ticket as the pro-choice, former judge, Sandoval.

And if Nikki Haley wins in South Carolina, she and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal will be the nation's first two Indian-American governors.

Taken together, these Hispanic and Indian-American candidates would give the GOP a more diverse group of governors than the Democrats in 2011. That startling reality should help shake-up stubborn stereotypes.

In addition, front-runner Cuban-American Marco Rubio in the Florida senate race rounds out a group of six competitive Hispanic GOP congressional candidates, including likely winner Francisco Canseco of Texas.

One of the byproducts of the rigged system of redistricting -- I recommend the new documentary Gerrymandering to learn more on the subject -- are safe congressional districts that are polarized along partisan as well as racial lines.

Therefore, a compromised incumbent Democrat like Harlem's Charles Rangel has a built-in advantage even against a strong challenger, like the Rev. Michel Faulkner, the former New York Jets player who is running against him.

"The growing diversity of the Republican party is not so much a response to Republican outreach efforts as it is to the bankruptcy of liberal ideals," says Faulkner. "Our growing diversity is really us just getting back to our fundamentals."

Of course, it's worth keeping all this in perspective: In the same post-civil rights period that Republicans have elected three African-Americans to Congress, Democrats have elected more than 90 -- not to mention the country's first African-American president.

But progress on overall diversity is still progress, and Michael Steele's leadership has proven effective in helping to recruit a group of candidates that can help close the pathetic diversity deficit. It is a reflection of the fact that our country is far more diverse than it was in the past, and the GOP is evolving to match.

A less racially polarized national political debate is in the interest of all-Americans. We need to move past the era when the color of a person's skin is seen as a reliable indicator of their political beliefs. That is a vision of a more perfect union, toward which we strive in every election.

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Sources: CNN, Fox News, McClatchy Newspapers, NY Times, Youtube, Google Maps

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