Young, Black and GOP: Party Leaders Speak Out

The Republican Party has struggled in recent decades to attract African-American voters, and the historic presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has only increased the challenge this year. But there are young black Republicans who insist that their party has something to offer people of color. Sean Conner, Marcus Skelton, and the Rev. Isaac Hayes share their strong affinity for the GOP.

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While the leading candidates this year had pledged to keep race out of the presidential race, race has surfaced as a subtext. It was probably inevitable. Barack Obama is the first African-American nominated for president by a major political party. While some conservative white voters have been challenged in their assumptions about blacks in America, black conservatives have been challenged to test their political values against questions of identity. Michel Martin is reporting from the RNC in St. Paul, Minnesota. She talked recently with three young black Republicans about how they are sorting out the question of race in this election. Michel is joined by Sean Conner, the outreach press secretary for the Republican National Convention. Marcus Skelton, chairman of the D.C. Young Republicans and Isaac Hayes, a youth minister and the political director for Republican congressman Antoine Members in Illinois.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Sean Conner, Marcus Skelton and Isaac Hayes - the Rev. Isaac Hayes, thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. SEAN CONNER (Outreach Press Secretary): Glad I'm here. Glad I'm here.

Mr. MARCUS SKELTON (Chairman, D.C. Young Republicans): Thank you.

Rev. ISAAC HAYES (Youth Minister; Political Director): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I want to start by asking each of you how you came to be Republicans. And the reason I ask is that since the new deal is of course, you know, most African-Americans have been Democratic. In fact, it was solidified during the civil rights era when the Republican Party, which had begun as the party of Lincoln, began to embrace massive resistance and become a refuge, really, for Democrats who are just affected by civil rights. So that's some powerful history to confront. So I'd like to ask you to view how it is - as briefly as you can, you came to be a Republican. Sean, why don't you start?

Mr. CONNER: I always say I came to be a Republican when I got my first paycheck at 16 and looked at where my money was going and what it was being spent on in Washington and knowing that I could spend my money a little bit better than the system.

MARTIN: Isaac Hayes, Rev. Hayes, what about you?

Rev. HAYES: You know I became a Republican once I began to look at the values agenda of the Republican Party in terms of pro-life, anti gay marriage. And then as I began to look at their economic platform in terms of lowering taxes and free trade and so forth, I saw that this was an agenda I wanted to support.

MARTIN: And I should mention that you're also a minister, which is part of your profile.

Rev. HAYES: Correct.

MARTIN: OK. And what about you, Marcus Skelton. You're a very young voter, if you don't mind my pointing that out, a chair of DC Young Republicans, a very young Republican. How old are you?

Mr. SKELTON: Twenty-seven, about to be 28 on the 27th of September.

MARTIN: OK. OK, and what about you?

Mr. SKELTON: Mine is a two-part answer. I guess I kind of grew up with a lot of mentors that put me in organizations that dealt with us - excelled from parliament and building the family from the community outwards. And then also, I lived in a county where I saw Democrats kind of over promise and under deliver for a number of generations. When you develop more people to become more self-reliant and to become more small business owners, you kind of pushed more of young people towards the Republican Party or becoming more independent, which we are starting to see.

MARTIN: Is it ever hard for you, though, being kind of a minority, within a minority - do you ever have trouble kind of reconciling your Republicaness with your other aspects of your identity, Isaac Hayes?

Rev. HAYES: It's not necessarily reconciling the racial issue as much as dealing with the false views of the Republican Party. For instance, this past Friday, I was having a discussion with my barber and he indicated that I must not care about the black population because of, you know, Katrina and high unemployment and so forth, and him attributing that to the Republican Party. And so, I had to let him know that clearly, it wasn't the case and that historically, the Republicans have been a friend to the African-American community and also that their platform and agenda was going to lead us out of the high unemployment, high job loss, high numbers of individuals without small business ownership. And so, you know, that was a debate that I clearly communicated...

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying. You're saying that the history of the party is one thing, but there's also a more recent history. Like the fact that the reason that a number of white Democrats became Republican in the South is because of their opposition and deep hostility to civil rights. And that history, obviously, brings something to bear, as well as more recent issues as you pointed out. Like Katrina, the government's poor performance during Hurricane Katrina. How do you deal with that? I understand you sort of argue the points on the merits, but does the history itself not trouble you?

Rev. HAYES: Well, the history does. But my experience here in Chicago, as I've been campaigning for Antoine Members here in the First Congressional District, is that the right Republicans we've interacted with have been nothing but supportive. So I have an experience that personally, you know, any resistance or, you know, some of the racial animosity that some people may feel in a party. But we haven't experienced that up to this point.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Sean Conner, Marcus Skelton and Isaac Hayes who are three young Republican African-Americans about their decisions about who to vote for this November.

MARTIN: I have one question which I wasn't sure was an interesting question, I just want to throw that in. And Sean, I'll just throw this one to you because I think you're the youngest one here.

Mr. CONNER: I am.

MARTIN: You're 24 years old. Is there sort of a part of you that - is there any part of you that has a hard time relating to John McCain just because there's such a big gap between you and him and then you know Barack Obama in his 40s is just a little closer in age.

Mr. CONNER: Well, you know, Barack Obama's about the same age as my mother. I was going to be telling you how old my mom is but she would not be happy with that. But they're about the same age, but I don't want to participate in ageism and that's really important to me because as a young person who's had amazing opportunity to be a press secretary at the RNC at 24, you know, I've experienced ageism and so I try not to do reverse ageism. That's why I try to take people (unintelligible) on a number of subjects.

MARTIN: I want to start with you, Marcus, on this next question because you're in D.C. which is kind of the epicenter of sort of political activities, kind of like the center of gravity. Did you think that you would see in your lifetime an African-American in striking distance of the presidency?

Mr. SKELTON: Yes, I honestly did. I didn't quite know it would happen in this cycle but if you look across the country, you're starting to see more minorities govern in districts within a minority. Like when you look at the governor of New York and the governor of Massachusetts, you start to see that you know, African-Americans can govern in non-African-American areas. And I hope that it would be a Republican African-American nominee running for nomination so I could actually vote for him. But you know, sometimes things don't work out perfect.

MARTIN: What about that? You know, that there are African-American Republicans whom we've spoken to - Armstrong Williams being one who has been on the show who said he is in fact torn, I mean the opportunity to vote for an African-American for this high office is just tempting to him in a way that is surprising to him. What about you Marcus, do you find yourself torn in any way?

Mr. SKELTON: Well, not really. I was talking to someone earlier, I said I can respect the candidacy but I can respect that, I can't vote for him because one of the most important things that he's pushing for people to not vote for him as far as the skin color but to vote for him on his policies and his issues, and we have a disagreement. As I said, if I did pull the lever after inauguration I'd be highly disappointed over the next four years. You know, I even joke around and tell people, you know, they say, so secretly are you going to vote for Obama, you don't have to tell us. I say you know what, you can save me a T-shirt but I'm going to vote for John McCain.

MARTIN: OK. Isaac, what about you? You have not always been a Republican unlike these other two gentlemen always being kind of relative term given that they're all like babies.

Rev. HAYES: Oh, thanks. Growing young professionals.

MARTIN: You did vote for George Bush in 2004 and I - you essentially you plan on voting for John McCain this November. But during the primaries, do I have it right that you did donate some money to Barack Obama? Was that because you just wanted to see him be competitive or - talk to me a little bit about this. Are you at all conflicted?

Rev. HAYES: Well first, I want to say I'm still young, I'm only 34. So you know, I'm not a baby boomer or anything like that. But I'm proud of Barack Obama, I certainly supported his candidacy in the Democratic Party, and I wanted him to win that election and I'm proud that he did. But as your guests have said, that does not have any bearing on the general election where John McCain clearly is in line with my views in terms of tax cuts, in terms of making sure we don't pull out of Iraq until we have a sufficient peace on the ground and the generals have given us the OK to do so, making sure that we take a tough stance against Russia, North Korea and some of the other rogue nations. So even though I'm proud of Barack as an African-American, when it comes to my values and my view of the world and the economy, I cannot support him as president.

MARTIN: All right. Final point - final question to sort of each of you, is you have each pointed out that you are proud of Senator Obama, you just don't agree with him on the issues and you're taking him at his word that you want - he wants people to vote for him because of his experience, his qualities, his skills, his insights and so forth, not because of his race. And you all say that, you know, I cannot do that. But is there a part of you that you feel like it's a bittersweet experience whether he wins or doesn't win? Marcus, I'll start with you.

Mr. SKELTON: Well, I think to a point. But I think that when it's all said done, I've done right thing. And for me to be able to sleep at night, I wouldn't want to pick somebody just because of skin color because I know a lot of people have asked white Americans for years to judge us equally. And now, the question has been reflected on us, how we're going to respond to that. And I think that's the question that I have to answer. And I think for me, to wrestle within myself I have to do what's right.

MARTIN: All right. Reverend Hayes, what about you?

Rev. HAYES: Yeah. Well, I think one of the narratives that's really being missed in this whole discussion is how far America has come because if Barack Obama would not be the nominee had not white Americans voted for him, and so I think we owe the nation a great deal of applause because we've come a long way. And though I support him as a Democratic nominee and African-American, I do not have that bittersweet feeling in my mouth because I know at the end of the day, my values are what trumps any of the racial aspects that I share with Senator Obama. But my values is what's most important to me and so I would be consider the values voter and therefore I do not have any bittersweet feelings.

MARTIN: All right. Sean, what about you?

Mr. CONNER: I'd say no. And I'd say no because I'd had to agree with my friends that there's this great sense of pride we can take in our country having moved forward and selecting an African-American male to be their party's nominee. But it's the same pride we should have taken when Carol Mosley Braun ran and when Shirley Chisholm ran, and when Jesse Jackson ran. So it's just a new level of pride that we could talk about. And you know, I think the first African-American president will be a Republican so I'm looking forward to that day.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Well...

Mr. CONNER: We'll come talk about it...

MARTIN: We'll come talk about that when it happens. Sean Conner is out, he's press secretary for the Republican National Committee. He joined me from Radio Row at the Xcel Center here in St. Paul. Marcus Skelton is the chairman of D.C. Young Republicans. He joined us from our studios in Washington. Marcus, keep my seat warm. Isaac Hayes is a youth minister and the political director for Republican Congressional Candidate Antoine Members in Illinois. He joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CONNER: Thank you.

Mr. SKELTON: Thank you for having us.

Rev. HAYES: Thank you.

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