Republicans Of Color: Set Up To Fail?

A large number of Republicans of color have been running in this year’s primaries. However, many are losing, and some observers doubt the party’s commitment to these candidates. Vernon Parker, a Black Republican who recently lost in an Arizona congressional primary, talks about his campaign and why he lost his bid. Also joining the discussion: Kai Wright, Editorial Director of Colorlines Magazine; conservative columnist Sophia Nelson, a contributor to the online journal The Root.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

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

On the program later, it's Friday and the guys in the Barbershop are making their way to their respective chairs to discuss some of the latest news headlines, including that rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's march on Washington speech. The rally is being organized by FOX News' channel's Glenn Beck.

But first, the TELL ME MORE political chat begins today in Arizona. We're talking about the record number of black Republican candidates who have been running for Congress, but have been struggling to get through their primaries to the November midterm election.

Case in point, Vernon Parker in Arizona's 3rd congressional district in the northern part of Phoenix in the suburbs. He was defeated in the primary this week by Ben Quayle, the son of the former vice president. Mr. Parker joins me now from Tempe. Good morning - hello, Mr. Parker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VERNON PARKER (Republican, 3rd Congressional District Candidate, Arizona): Hello, thanks for having me.

KEYES: The Republican National Committee was saying earlier this year that Republicans of color can get elected with significant white support while running on conservative principles, is that not happening?

Mr. PARKER: Well, you know, when I look at my own race, you know, we are currently tied for third place behind Ben Quayle, who's a former who's the son of the former vice president and another gentleman who is currently in second by, I think he probably has about five or 600 more votes than I have. He spent well over 1.1 million. Ben Quayle's father, he raised over 1.5 million.

And we did extremely well. We, you know, considering that we didn't have the resources, we were outspent 4-to-1. I do believe that if we had the resources, this race would have been ours because, believe me, we had close to well, we had 17 percent of the vote out of a 10-person primary. So that spoke volumes.

KEYES: Let me play a little bit from an earlier conversation you had with Michel Martin here on this show talking about President Obama's victory and your encounter with a white woman voter.

Mr. PARKER: Well, there was one funny experience that I had. This one woman, she came up to me, she was white and she goes, you know, I was never a racist before until Barack Obama got elected. And I said, why? And she goes, well, I disagree with him on health care. I disagree with him on, you know, the border. I disagree with him on the massive bailouts.

So I told her, I said, well, maybe you didn't get the memo, he is half white. That's his white side. Now, do you hate all white people, you know?

KEYES: You're a man who says you haven't experience racism. And, but I've got to ask, do you think...

Mr. PARKER: Well, I didn't say that now. Oh, my goodness, no.

KEYES: Okay. You have you've said that in a couple of places.

Mr. PARKER: Absolutely. Well, no, absolutely. I definitely have experienced racism.

KEYES: Okay, well, wait, let me ask my question, though. Do you think being African-American in the district in which you ran majority white, affluent -had anything at all to do with your defeat? Or was it all about the money?

Mr. PARKER: Well, look, let me just explain this to you. I, up until one month ago, I was the mayor of a town of Paradise Valley. Paradise Valley, Arizona is a very affluent suburb right next to Phoenix. Paradise Valley is 98 percent white and I received 67 percent of the vote, the most votes in the town's history. So, you know, so I thought that that spoke volumes for the people in the town of Paradise Valley. And we took that same, you know, thought and ideological path to run for Congress.

Now, I most definitely was the most qualified person in this race. I mean I was the former general counsel of a federal department. I was a former special assistant to the president of the United States. I was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. I was the mayor of a town. So, you know, when I look at this race and when I say that with a town that's 98 percent white and I got 67 percent of the vote the most votes in the town's history. So that spoke volumes.

KEYES: So, you think the same thing is happening nationwide, the other black Republicans who lost their races were not about race. It was about other issues.

Mr. PARKER: You know, I look at it like this. And I can only speak for my own race. If I had the money that Ben Quayle had or if I had the name ID, there is no contest. And I can look, when you look at the qualifications between Ben Quayle and me, there was no comparison. I mean he did not even come close to the qualifications. But it's unfortunate that we have an electorate that just look at someone's last name or if you have a famous father who can fly around the country and raise close to, you know, $2 million or $1.5 million, and elections are decided like that, unfortunately.

But we ran a very good race. First time running in the congressional race, we out of a 10-field primary we had...

KEYES: And you made fourth out of that, which is, you know...

Mr. PARKER: I think we're going to come in third, though, but I...

KEYES: After all the votes are counted.

Mr. PARKER: Yes. But we had more votes than five of the other candidates combined.

KEYES: Mr. Parker, sorry, I've got to stop you here for a moment because I'm going to bring in a couple of other guests to join the conversation. But first, I want to play a clip from Republican Party chair Michael Steele who says he's been trying to expand the party's support base. He caught some flak from comments last year about integrating Republican principles in, quote, "urban suburban hip-hop settings."

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican Party): I'm talking about the Republican Party have an urban agenda. An agenda where our community lives, where our community is creating wealth, going to school, living and dying and have something to say to them. I'm not trying to play off of hip-hop. I'm not trying to use hip-hop. What I'm trying to recognize is there's something of value that's happening in the community that's reflected on the economic side of hip-hop.

KEYES: Mr. Parker, I hope you'll stay with us while I bring in two other guests. We have with us Kai Wright, editorial director of ColorLines Magazine and Sophia Nelson, a Republican strategist turned Independent. She's now a contributor to the Root.com, The Washington Post and Essence. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. SOPHIA NELSON (Republican Strategist, Writer): Thank you.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Editorial Director, ColorLines Magazine): Thanks for having me.

KEYES: So, Kai, is the Republican Party really ready to push candidates of color? Are these candidates being set up to fail or are they doing a good job at putting them out there?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you know, they face a tough position, they being the party. You know, these are local elections, but they exist in a national context. And what's clear is that in the course of trying to regain control of Capitol Hill, in this election cycle, they've chosen to double down on a strategy that focuses on frustrated white men. And we've seen it with the 14th Amendment debate and a host of others. And I think that makes it difficult for the party to both recruit candidates and support the ones they've got in these elections.

KEYES: Sophia, there hasn't been a black Republican in the House since 2003, I believe, when J.C. Watts left. What's going on with that?

Ms. NELSON: Yeah, that's right. Let me say this a little ancient history. In 1996, I was a candidate for Congress in New Jersey's 1st Congressional District, a Republican candidate. Christie Whitman was then governor. We had all the apparatus - the state party, et cetera, et cetera. And I was about 29 years old at that time and while it was definitely a Democrat-leaning district, I had run countywide, like, the year before and gotten, like, something, like, 48 percent of the vote in a 3-to-1 Democrat county.

And I grew up there, et cetera, so I had a good base. And I couldn't get support for that race. And I had nationalized it to the extent that, you know, we've talked about here a little bit this morning, you know, is one of the rising stars in the party at the time, you know, a black female. New York Times covered it and all that. My point is this. Vernon's story is not unique.

Now, he had a lot more qualifications to be a member of Congress. I wasn't a sitting mayor, et cetera, but, you know, a new young attorney, et cetera, et cetera. And the point is, is that nothing's changed. I'm sitting here as I'm listening to the dialogue this morning and I'm shaking my head and I'm saying this is why I've had a hard time with the Republican Party.

KEYES: All right, Kai.

Ms. NELSON: I've been in it since 1988.

KEYES: Let me jump in here, Mr. Parker, do you think your party supported you the way it should have or could have?

Mr. PARKER: Well, here's what in my recent particular...

KEYES: And I need a fairly short answer, sir, sorry.

Mr. PARKER: Yeah. The answer is, I would've loved a lot more help. But we had over 1,100 donors. And so given the complexity of our race with the former vice president's son, people were reluctant to jump in there and that was unfortunate.

Ms. NELSON: Let me say the reason that Vernon has to respond the way he is and I got a smile on my face and I'm not trying to put words in his mouth, but...

KEYES: And briefly, Kai, go ahead.

Ms. NELSON: He has to be careful with this because we hope he runs again. I know I'd like to see him be governor of Arizona someday or a U.S. senator. (unintelligible) want him beating up on the party 'cause that would not be positive for him to do, but I can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: And I'm saying that this is nothing new. This is what they've done forever and also I think it's important for - your listeners should know that most of the black candidates that run are running in districts where they wouldn't have a hope and prayer of winning anyway.

KEYES: Okay, Sophia, I need you to hold that thought. Kai, what chance do people of color have under the circumstances under which Sophia and Mr. Parker are talking?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I don't think they've got a lot, to be honest. Even if the Republicans could really support these candidates. Again, I think they create a national environment that's very difficult for them to be viable within the party. You know, you get more money and you get more support as you stand out as someone who can climb up the national rung.

And as the national party decides that it's doubling down on (unintelligible) strategy that makes it difficult to make a case for yourself as someone who's going to be an up and comer. I think, you know, the standout interesting case is of course Nikki Haley in South Carolina who bought the party and managed to win and did it while leaning into the conversation about race and religion in some ways using that to exploit media opportunities combined with just, you know, good old fashioned retail politics.

I think that's an interesting example of the kind of person of color that can win in a Republican race. But I think it's difficult when you have the national context of where the party's trying to lean.

Ms. NELSON: But I also think, too, the important that I learned in my years in the party and I think what Vernon has going for him that I think will work for him in the future, I mean, I think running against Ben Quayle was unfortunate for the reasons he mentioned. It didn't matter if Ben Quayle didn't have any experience or wasn't articulate or whatever it is that he wasn't able to do and he even had a little scandal going there, not bad...

KEYES: Sophia, I need you to finish your thought.

Mr. NELSON: And he basically won because he had the right last name.

KEYES: Okay. Vernon Parker is the former mayor of Paradise Valley, Arizona and former candidate for Arizona's 3rd District congressional seat in the just concluded primary. He joined us from member station KJZZ in Tempe. Kai Wright is editorial director of ColorLines Magazine and joined us from New York. And Sophia Nelson is a columnist and contributor for Washington Post, Essence (unintelligible) and the Root.com. She joined us here in metro Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for a scintillating, if short, conversation.

Mr. PARKER: Thank you, it was fun.

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