Republicans Seek to Increase African-American Support

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, talks about his efforts to crisscross the country in search of increased African-American support for the GOP. Small percentage point increases in black voting for Republicans have proven decisive in some regions.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following today at NPR News. Iraqi politicians are struggling to create a draft constitution by midnight Baghdad time. That's just a couple of hours from now. Sunnis are objecting to a draft document that would create a federalized state. Kurds want to preserve their autonomy in the north. Some Shias also want the option to have an autonomous region in the south. And Israel says it has finished evacuation of all Jewish settlements in Gaza. The withdrawal ends 38 years of occupation of the Gaza Strip. You can hear details on those stories and much more, of course, later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow here on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll be taking a look at what appears to be the draft constitution for the Iraqi people. It's been worked out in negotiations over the past several months. Today was a second deadline. As the deadline approaches, it does look as if a document is going to be agreed. There is still Sunni objections, but we'll talk about the future of regional rights, women's rights and oil wealth, as Iraqis consider their future in the form of this constitution. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

George W. Bush picked up 11 percent of the African-American vote in last year's presidential election, which may not sound like much, but it is 2 percentage points higher than his performance in the year 2000. He also made big gains among black voters in Florida and Ohio that may have led directly to his re-election. The GOP has also increased its share of the Hispanic vote from 21 percent in 1996 to about 40 percent last year.

No one is working harder than Ken Mehlman to continue that trend. He's the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and he's been crisscrossing the country to talk with African-American church leaders, Latino community groups and, most notably, the NAACP national convention in July when he confessed what many African-Americans had long assumed.

(Soundbite from speech)

Mr. KEN MEHLMAN (Chairman, Republican National Committee): Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I come here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.

(Soundbite of applause, music)

CONAN: If you have questions for Ken Mehlman about minority outreach or politics in general, our number is (800) 989-8255, or you can send us e-mail: totn@npr.org. Ken Mehlman joins us now from the offices of the Republican National Committee.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. MEHLMAN: How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Good.

CONAN: So what prompted that apology for the Republican Southern strategy?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, during the course of that speech, I had not discussed a Southern strategy. What I said was that some Republicans--this is not all Republicans, but some in the past, I thought, had not done enough to reach out and I thought some looked the other way on racial polarization--on issues that were racially polarizing. I think today it is the Democrats that engage in that behavior, and I think it's wrong when the Democrats do it today, and I think to the extent Republicans did it in the past, that was wrong, also.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, this was, again, at the NAACP convention. President Bush has yet to attend the NAACP convention during his presidency. How come?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, President Bush was speaking to another, I thought, very important and good organization that day, an organization that promoted African-American efforts to increase access to capital, increase business and increase other things. President has good relationships and good friendships with a number of the leaders of the NAACP. As one who spoke to the NAACP, I have to say I've been somewhat disappointed by the rhetoric of some of their leaders, which say things like, for instance, the fact that because Colin Powell and Condi Rice don't agree with them on every issue, somehow that they must be puppets, they must not have their own views. I think that is the kind of racial polarization we don't need in our country.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What do you offer that Democrats don't on issues that most affect black Americans?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, I think that what we offer today is what the new NAACP president, Bruce Gordon, talks about, and that is a real plan and real strategies to build on the legal equality that folks have today that says, `How do we close the education gap? How do we close the health-care gap? How do we close the wealth gap in our country? How do we make sure more people have access to the American Dream?' If you think about it, a lot of your listeners probably are able to decide where their children go to school and they're able to influence their schools. A lot of your listeners are probably able to own their own home. They may have a 401(k) plan or an IRA so that when they retire, they have a Social Security check as well as another nest egg they can count on.

But for too many Americans, and in this case too many Americans who are minorities, they don't have those choices. They don't have the ability to have control over their children's school and make sure their children are getting a quality education. They don't have the ability to choose their own health care. They can't decide where they're gonna live and they don't have the ability to plan for their retirement by putting aside a nest egg. And I believe we have a plan, we have strategies, we have proposals that say to folks, `If you haven't had full access to the American Dream, our policies will help you, will empower you, will improve your quality of life.' And what you hear from the other side is `just say no' to almost every one of those proposals, whether it's education reform, whether it's Social Security reform, whether it's health savings accounts. On every single one, the response of most Democrat leaders today is to say, `I'm gonna defend a bureaucracy and status quo,' even if the effect of defending the bureaucracy and the status quo is to hurt poor folks.

CONAN: Well, some people might argue that the bureaucracy and the status quo, also known as the government, provided a lot of benefits to African-Americans around the country. The federal government was the one that intervened, after all, on all of these civil rights cases.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, when I'm describing the bureaucracy, I'm not talking about the government. What I'm talking about is do we think in the 21st century the existing Social Security system makes sense? Or given the fact that four in 10 African-Americans and four in 10 Latinos who are 65 and over, all they have right now is a Social Security check. Wouldn't it be great if their grandchildren and their children, even if their children and grandchildren live paycheck to paycheck--which by the way, we want to fix, too. We want to make sure more folks are able to save money. But wouldn't it be also great if they could have a nest egg they could have for their own retirement? That's not about eliminating government. That's about updating a program that had a progressive and good goal for a different era. And what I object to, I think, is that in many cases, today's Democrats seem more beholden to the bureaucracy than the goal of programs that were created and that did good for our country.

CONAN: Well, let me ask--I got off--I could see that the switch you--I confused over--or getting onto civil rights. But anyway, there are some provisions of the Civil Rights Act that do come up for reauthorization. Is the Republican Party in favor of reauthorizing?

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, the Republican Party is in favor of very strictly enforcing, and already the Republican chairman and the Republican speaker have both said they want to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act as it is and a 25-year extension. The Republican attorney general, who strictly enforces that law, has also talked about reauthorizing it, and Republicans are welcoming lots of different ideas about how we do it best and most effectively. But absolutely, we are--strongly believe in the strictest possible enforcement of these laws, which make sure that all of us as Americans are protected.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Our guest is Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

We'll start with Anita. Anita calling from here in Washington, DC.

ANITA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ANITA: Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

ANITA: OK. Hello, Mr. Mehlman.

Mr. MEHLMAN: How are you, Anita?

ANITA: I heard you speak at one time. I am a disability rights activist, and I do non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts for people with disabilities, and also African-Americans, and I must say to begin with, I'm not one of those that assume that just because you're a Democrat, you're the best thing since sliced bread, and just because you're a Republican that you're evil, because I work--in my work with disability issues, do work with folks from both side and have seen both sides. My question to you is, a lot of the African-American community, many of us are poor. I mean, extremely poor. Many of us live on some form of government assistance, whether it's Social Security disability or some form of welfare. A lot of us are homeless. And I'm wondering, how will the Republican National Committee reach out to those folks and engage--you know, engage those folks in voting efforts, in showing very, very poor African-Americans and other minorities that you are a political party that cares?

I'll tell you a brief incident that I had. I participated in a rally, a non-partisan get-out-the vote rally. We had a protest of sorts at the Republican National Committee offices here in DC, and two representatives came out to address the crowd. They both were African-American. One of the issues that they raised was voting fraud among poor people, citing addresses that were hotels and the like, and the--I addressed that issue by saying that many, many poor people, particularly African-Americans, live in these hotels. We're not talking ritzy hotels. We're talking little kind of...

CONAN: Welfare hotels, they used to be called.

ANITA: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah.

ANITA: And that these were their addresses. Many of these people were homeless, and that was the closest address that they could get, and these people were not criminals. They live at that address. It wasn't fake addresses, and here you are assuming that these people are criminals and you were denying them the right to vote.

CONAN: And maybe even worse, assuming that they were gonna vote Democrat.

ANITA: Exactly. You know.

CONAN: Let's get a response from Mr. Mehlman.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, in terms of what is our agenda, our agenda--or what is our plan is to talk about what we're for and what we'll do to ameliorate that poverty. The president put forward a very innovative proposal in the 2004 convention we had in New York and is putting forward now called the opportunity zone proposal. It builds on something Jack Kemp had done earlier when we created enterprise zones, and it expands them. It says in areas where there's levels of chronic poverty, in areas where there's levels of high levels of unemployment, we're gonna not only reduce significantly taxes and regulation, but we're gonna make sure they're the first places in line for government assistance. We're gonna make sure they're the first places where we train folks about financial literacy, where we help people provide assistance.

The second thing I'm gonna do is talk about our proposal to make sure we grow jobs in our country. Our goal is for poor people to be able to become middle class, to be able to live the American Dream, and in order to accomplish that, in my judgment, we've got to reduce the levels of taxation, regulation and litigation. One thing we know, when an employer takes money and spends it defending a lawsuit, when an employer takes money to comply with federal taxes, when an employer has to deal with red tape from the government, that's money they can't pay their employees, that's money that can't be used to help improve folks' lives.

CONAN: Let me just ask you, a lot of jobs, particularly entry-level jobs in whole kinds of industries have been wiped out by moving positions overseas. This is not just Republicans, it's Democrats as well--happened during the Clinton administration. A lot of people say it's structural, it's going to happen. How do you address the loss of those kinds of jobs for people--the kind of people Anita's talking about?

Mr. MEHLMAN: I think what you do is two things. One you encourage more insourcing, but two, if it's just as easy to create a job in a world today, which it is, in Lima, Peru, as it is in Lima, Ohio, and in Lima, Ohio, there are high taxes, there's lots of regulation and there's lots of lawsuits, then those jobs are gonna go overseas. What we need to do is look at every one of our government policies and say, `Do those policies create outsourcing? Do those policies eliminate jobs? Do those policies hurt the people we're trying to help?' Tom Friedman, the very, I think, thoughtful New York Times columnist, has written a book called "The World is Flat," and in it he argues that it's easy to move jobs anywhere in the world, and he's probably right. In such an environment, that's why it's so important that we reform the tax code, why we reduce regulation, why we reduce the number of lawsuits, because in that kind of a world, those policies actually end up driving jobs offshore.

CONAN: Anita, thanks very much for the phone call.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Thank you, Anita.

ANITA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Steve in St. Louis, Missouri.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. I'm calling from the city of St. Louis where various high-profile Republicans have made accusations about voting fraud that benefits Democrats, and I find this quite curious, because in many areas, particularly in the county of St. Louis, which goes Republican a lot, there are very excellent voting facilities with, you know, optical voting machines and very easy ways to get access to vote. But frequently in national elections, areas where black voters and other minority voters go to are, quite frankly, overrun with voters, and many people can't get out and can't spend eight hours waiting in line. I'm curious as to what the Republican Party is planning to do in order to ensure that this type of technology is equitably spread to many areas, and to ensure that people are able to participate in their civic duties without having to lose income or go out of their way in ways that would harm their family.

CONAN: Yeah, this came up in Ohio as well. Go ahead, Mr. Mehlman.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, in terms of how we get more folks participating in the process, we're gonna build on what we did in 2004. In 2004, the Republican National Committee signed up 16,000 African-American team leaders who went in their churches, in their organizations, in their neighborhoods and recruited others. We're gonna, in 22 states, put staff in to help register to vote more African-Americans, and so that's to increase participation.

In terms of the other issue, I think what we need to do is we need to make sure that we have a system and federal funds and state funds are being spent on a system that makes it easy to vote, provided that they're eligible and registered to vote. In the 2004 campaign--you mentioned vote fraud--two courts had to step in to prevent political parties from intimidating, harassing and discouraging participation. Both were Democrats. One occurred in Marion County, Ohio, and the other occurred in Florida. In both cases, Democrats were involved in discouraging volunteers and others from participating. And so I think we need to have--and we recently, in response to a report that came out, said there'll be zero tolerance from here on--I hope the Democrats will do the same thing--to people that discourage participation. We need more participation.

We also need to remember that to the extent to which--like happened in Ohio where, for instance, you had the registration of Dick Tracy and Mary Poppins and a lot of fraudulent registrations, that cancels all of our votes out. That undermines all of our rights to participate in the process, so we need to make sure that clearly everyone has a right to participate and no one's vote is canceled out.

CONAN: But specifically on Steve's question, should there be an equal number of voting machines per population in density? I mean...

Mr. MEHLMAN: Well, the Ohio--you mentioned Ohio as an example.

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. MEHLMAN: The House Administration Committee went to Ohio and conducted testimony, and according to the Democratic chairman of the Franklin County Election Board and the Democratic county chairman--he's both--there was in Ohio. He said that a lot of this talk about the fact that there was unequal, in his belief, as the guy that was responsible in the second largest city in the state for those activities, that's not true. I believe there ought to be the right of people to participate, absolutely. It's also worth remembering that when the facts are looked at in some cases, we have legends that turned out not to be the reality.

CONAN: So you don't subscribe...

STEVE: Mr. Mehlman, I just want to mention that when I voted, it took me approximately five minutes to fill out my ballot, but there are people who wait in line for three, four, sometimes six hours, and these are patriotic Americans of different parties. I ...(unintelligible).

Mr. MEHLMAN: I would agree with that, and I don't think they should have to. My point is that it didn't happen in one area vs. another area. It happened in a lot of areas, and I think that certainly looking at ways to reduce those lines is a good thing. Looking at doing things like absentee voting is a good thing. I'm very pleased that in 2004, when the president was re-elected, we had the highest level of voter turnout since 1968. That increased level of participation--George Bush got 23 percent more votes than he got in the 2000 campaign. That's a great thing. That's a lot of folks participating. Kerry got 13 percent more than Al Gore got. So I'm with you. I want more participation. That's one of the biggest things I focus my time on is increasing the level of participation.

CONAN: Steve, I'm afraid we're gonna have to leave it there. Thanks very much for the phone call.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Ken Mehlman, we know you're busy. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. MEHLMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. He joined us from the offices of the RNC here in Washington.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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