Republican Party Sees Surge of Black Candidates

For a long time, the Republican Party could be a lonely place for African Americans, but this year has seen the largest surge in black GOP candidates since Reconstruction. Pamela Gentry, senior political analyst at BET, joins guest host Allison Keyes to discuss this trend, and some of the interesting upcoming primaries around the country.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

The NBA playoffs are in full swing, but the WNBA tips off its season tomorrow. We'll have a preview in a few minutes.

But first, for decades, African-Americans have represented a reliable voting block for Democrats. But what about those who support the Republican Party? This primary season there's been a surge of black Republican candidates for Congress, 32 to be precise, the most since Reconstruction.

To talk about this development and some of the hot primaries this season, we've called on frequent TELL ME MORE contributor and BET senior political analyst Pam Gentry. She joins us from Las Vegas. Welcome back to the program, Pam.

Ms. PAM GENTRY (Senior Political Analyst, BET): Always a pleasure.

KEYES: So we've already said there's a historic number of black people running for Republican nominations to Congress this year, what's behind all that?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, there's a combination of things. The first is that, you know, in all fairness to the Democratic Party, because it has had such a lock on the African-American vote, there's a long line of very qualified candidates in the stream, you know, on the table. So if you have a seat that comes open, whether it's a local municipality seat or a Congressional seat, there are a lot of well (unintelligible) Democratic African-Americans to run.

The bench is not that deep on the Republican side. And so the Republicans have, over the years, they've made efforts to break into the African-American community and to try and field the good candidates. But now the line is opening up. And so I think candidates who want to run are seeing this as an opportunity and they're taking it.

KEYES: Are they different than the previous crop of Republican candidates? There was a fair number in 1994 and 2000.

Ms. GENTRY: Yeah, there are a couple differences this time around. First of all, a lot of these folks have been working at the local levels, maybe with the party, not necessarily in politics, but they have worked very closely in the Republican Party. A lot of them are conservatives. They are basically following the principles of the conservative party and so they don't feel that, really, this is an odd fit for them. They feel comfortable there.

And the third thing is we can't ignore this. I mean, it does help that you do now have an African-American president. You also have the Republican National Party has elected a leader that is African-American. So they see that the party has really put a little bit of money on the table as to what they said they wanted to do. And now they're seeing it happen.

But I think the biggest difference here is not that either one of these African-Americans has taken leadership positions, it has really reinforced that conservatives or white Americans and other African-Americans will support candidates, not necessarily solely based on the party that they are affiliated with.

KEYES: Well, let's take a listen to a few of these candidates. Princella Smith is hoping to become the GOP's nominee for the first district in Arkansas. Here's what she had to say about the role race has played in her campaign.

Ms. PRINCELLA SMITH (Candidate, Arkansas First District): I have really found that most people here are so jaded by people in Washington, D.C. that they really just want to know, are you going to do a good job? And it almost doesn't even matter, you know, that I'm a female, that I'm 26, that I'm African-American. You know, they just don't care.

The questions that I've been asked have been directly targeted to the issues. And believe it or not, it's the media and press that have asked me more about race than anybody else.

KEYES: So, Pam, is it just the press? Are we the only people that are concerned about this large number of black people running as Republicans?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I don't think we're as concerned about it as we're intrigued by, can these candidates win? And she made an interesting point. I mean, a lot of I mentioned this earlier a lot of them are spouting very conservative values. They're supporting school vouchers. They're supporting prayer in school. They're supporting gun rights. They are taking on very conservative issues. So they know that the constituency that they're going after would have to support them issue by issue.

But what concerns me is that they're not necessarily going on any type of, I would say moderate at any moderate issues, where they can be really, where you can really be judged on it. I mean, of course if you say I'm conservative and I'm, you know, I'm against abortion, of course you're going to get that, yes, that's a great thing. But there are other things that, you know, economic policies and things like that that you may want someone who has a more modest platform.

So that'll be the challenge for them because I don't think that necessarily race is going to be a huge factor if they are really spouting the conservative thing. But if they come up to a candidate that is a non-African-American candidate with all the same qualities, what's going to set them apart? That's the challenge for them.

KEYES: You were saying earlier that some of these candidacies are kind of reactions to the Obama presidency. I read that one person said, well, if the president of the United States was elected with a significant amount of white support, then so could we be. Do you think the president would find that to be ironic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENTRY: I think he would find that to be intriguing. And I think that, in some point, we have to give a lot of credit to the president. But in the real political circles where everything is local politics, it's local. If you look at some of the early races that African-Americans won in cities which were predominantly white or predominantly conservative, you look at cities like Denver, these mayors in large municipalities, they did win and it was not a racial vote. It was a vote for the person and for the candidate.

So we have to admit that that is a quality that voters look for and that the race factor can become secondary. But what I was saying on the bigger scale, President Obama and Michael Steele have done something else, and they have shown that people will go for candidates regardless of their race if in fact they believe in their ideology. And that's where the tire hits the pavement.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and I'm speaking with Pamela Gentry, senior political analyst for BET, and we're talking about the surge of African-Americans running as Republicans this primary season.

Pam, let's take a listen to another candidate. This is Vernon Parker. He's mayor of Paradise Valley, Arizona, which is a majority white affluent community just outside of Scottsdale. And he talked with us a bit about one of his motivations to run on the Republican ticket.

Mr. VERNON PARKER (Mayor, Paradise Valley, Arizona): The greater cry that I get, quite frankly, is from the white community. And they say, we need more African-Americans in the Republican Party. They are right, because we have to get away from the day where we have 90 percent of the African-American population in the Democratic Party.

That phenom does not exist anywhere else. You don't have 90 percent of white people in the Republican Party. They have different views. And the African-American community is the same. We have different views. We have different values. We should not be handcuffed to one political party.

KEYES: Do you think, as Mayor Parker suggested, African-Americans should or are rethinking their voting behavior?

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I think that they have to. I mean, you have to really understand that your voting power is, when it is in that one block, then that's the only place you can go for change or for assistance, or really it's the only pulpit that you have to take your issues to.

And of course diversifying, African-Americans being part of the Republican Party, maybe they will influence the Republican Party and change the platform just as the conservatives kind of took over the Republican Party and they kicked all the moderates out. You know, this could be the first moderate wave or the less conservative wave if you have Republicans who come into the party as African-Americans, they may have a little bit more influence because they are not going to be expected to be like everyone else.

KEYES: I want to play another clip from Princella Smith because she also talked about the need for some changing political attitudes.

Ms. SMITH: I'm tired of people putting people in boxes. I just think that we live in such a great country where we are allowed to vote for who we want to vote for. We are allowed to be a member of whatever political party we're a member of and have whatever political ideology we want to have. I just am glad that now, okay, we're going to have enough African-Americans running so that other people can see, okay, it's not abnormal to be African-American and Republican.

I want a day in America where you don't just look at somebody automatically and say, oh, they must be a Democrat. Or, oh, they must be a Republican. We need to mix it up.

KEYES: Pam, do you think that people really are doing that? Or are they just still looking at people going, all right, that's a black woman, she must be a Democrat. Oh, that's a blond guy, he's got to be a Republican because he's in Wyoming?

Ms. GENTRY: I think that we do. In this country right now we do do that. But it's not that they're stereotyping, I mean, we look at the you can look at the voting records. African-Americans in the last presidential races all hit over the 93, 94 and 96 percentile with President Obama. They voted Democratic, I mean, that's a fact. That's not something that people are saying, I guess.

So, now, can we guess that the other 2 or 3 percent who did not vote Democratic are Republican? We don't know. Some are independents. But I do think that the diversity in the Republican Party is only going to come from more people joining it or running on that ticket and espousing different beliefs. So I can understand that point.

But, no, it's not stereotypical. And I don't think that it's and I don't see a huge sea change. I don't see this going back to 1960s where it was when President Nixon won, where you're going to have something like 60 percent of African-Americans voting, you know, still voting Republican. I think that didn't change until after Nixon's win. But I don't think we're going to see that. But I do see a sea change of three, four, five, eight percent in some local races.

KEYES: I want to actually talk about a couple of the primaries that are coming up and talk about Democrats. There are some important primaries coming up. Let's take a look at this Tuesday's primary in Pennsylvania. Incumbent Arlen Specter was once a Republican, but switched a year ago. Now he's facing some tough competition from Representative Joe Sestak. Briefly talk to me about that race.

Ms. GENTRY: Well, I think there are a couple of things going on there. Let's not Arlen Specter has now run into, you know, a formidable challenge. The polls right now are showing him practically even with his Democratic challenger. The ad wars have gotten a little dirty and even his challenger now is charging him with maybe he's just a little bit too old and been there too long.

But here are the problems with Pennsylvania. Arlen Specter has never really, this is his first challenge as a Democrat. And Arlen Specter has won very successfully as a Republican. But the thing is, if Arlen Specter loses this, will his challenger be able to beat a Republican challenger? And so I think that's what Pennsylvania is going to have to figure out if they send Sestak to the if he wins the primary, how well will he fair against a Republican opponent?

I don't want to count Arlen Specter out at this time. Senator Specter has had close races in '92. He had a close race in '04, and he ended up pulling those out with two or three percent margins. So Pennsylvania complains about him, but I think they like him as well.

KEYES: And the Kagan nomination, the nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court has kind of complicated that race a bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENTRY: Yes, I'm sure he if the president had called and asked him told him he was going to nominate her, he would have said to wait until after May 18th. It would have been a much easier poll for him. But...

KEYES: Pam, I've got to jump in here, I'm so sorry, we're out of time. Pam Gentry is a senior political analyst for BET. She came to us from Las Vegas, Nevada. Thanks so much, Pam, for joining us.

Ms. GENTRY: Not a problem.

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