MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We have our Friday features for you. Coming up in Faith Matters, Muslim-American voters overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush in the 2000 election, but now have abandoned the GOP in droves. We talk to three Muslim Republicans about keeping a foot in both worlds.
But first, in our weekly political chat, all year long we've been talking about how people are going to vote, why they're going to vote, and in a historic election, what role that race, gender, age, and other aspects of identity play in, helping them make up their minds. But what about voters who flip the script? James T. Harris and John Martin know all about that. It has not been easy. James T. Harris hosts the radio program, 'The National Conversation with James T. Harris" in Milwaukee. He rose to infamy in the African-American community last week when at a town hall meeting in Wisconsin, he pleaded with Senator John McCain to step up his attacks against Senator Barack Obama. John Martin is the founder of Republicans for Obama, and well, that pretty much describes his conflict. Mr. Harris, Mr. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. JOHN MARTIN (Founder, Republican for Obama): Michel, good to be here.
Mr. JAMES T. HARRIS (Host, "The National Conversation with James T. Harris"): Good to be here. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: John, I want to start with you, because you started down this path kind of early this year and got some attention for it. Political affiliation is a big part of some people's core identity. I wanted to ask, how big of a part of your identity is being a Republican or has been being a Republican for you?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I can remember back in high school reading Rush Limbaugh's books. I read the National Review when I probably should have been doing my homework. When I turned 18, there is no doubt in my mind that I would register as a Republican. So, I'm 30 now, I've no plans of leaving the Republican Party, however, I am, in this one instance, supporting a Democrat.
MARTIN: And why is that? What is about Senator Barack Obama that caused you not only to want to support him but to create a group to support him?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, he's a unique leader. He is the type of leader that we need right now. He aggressively reaches out to people throughout the political spectrum. He courts Republicans and Independents and that is a breath of fresh air.
MARTIN: And, James, I want to ask you, black Republicans have gotten quite a lot of press in recent years, but the fact is, they're a tiny minority in the black community, maybe one of out 10 at most. So, can I ask you, how did you become attracted to the Republican Party? I've heard you say that you're to the right of Rush.
Mr. HARRIS: I came to it much in the same way as your other guest. Roommates in college, then I started to read the National Review. I read the "Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek. I read the book "The Conservative Mind" by Russell Kirk. And then around the time that I traveled, went to school at the University of Nottingham, England for a year and some of my ideas got put to the test. But when I came home in the late '80s, around the time of talk radio, I became a Rush Limbaugh fan, and then, here in Milwaukee, we have talkers, Charlie Sykes, Mark Belling, other people that I listen to and started call in, and it just - Monday I called in to a radio show and I was given the opportunity to co-host, and it's just sort of a progression.
MARTIN: And why are you supporting John McCain?
Mr. HARRIS: I'm supporting John McCain because out of the two candidates, one is a moderate Republican that leans left, and the other one is a liberal that leans toward socialism. I have a better chance of convincing the moderate Republican to come back to us conservatives than I do the liberal socialist.
MARTIN: And, James, you are a talk show host now, so I assume you're used to public attention, but I understand maybe you got a little bit more than you were anticipating when you stood up at that town hall meeting last week, and you told John McCain that he needs to take it to Obama. Give me some idea of the reaction that you've been receiving.
Mr. HARRIS: I don't think I was prepared for the reaction. I was at first kind of surprised by it. It is true that I knew what it was like to be a conservative in the American of African descent community. But I did not - I had no idea of the level of hatred and backlash that I was going to get from the Barack Obama supporters, primarily in the American-African descent community. It's just - it's been overwhelming, the hate and the death threats.
MARTIN: Give me an example. I think we all understand what death threats are, but give me an example of some of the things that people have said to you, and how are they communicating with you. Email or calls?
Mr. HARRIS: Oh, my email, my business - because I'm a professional speaker and a consultant. And they had basically taken over my business site, and this it is just inundated with hate mail. You - I'm sorry, Facebook account and my private Email and my - the station Email is just overrun with hate mail.
MARTIN: What do they say?
Mr. HARRIS: Here's one in particular. Let me see. Hello, you racist dog. You are officially dismissed from the African-American race. How disgusting to see you on television with your white racist friends, McCain and Palin. To them, you're just another "nigger." I hope you fry in hell for what you said about a decent person like Barack. Go Obama-Biden '08.
MARTIN: OK, that's pretty intense. John...
Mr. HARRIS: And that's one of the mild ones. I can't go into the ones where they are talking about my mother, and they're talking about my family, and wishing that I was aborted, and all these kind of stuff.
MARTIN: Oh, dear. That's tough. Well, I have to say that John Martin on the other side, you know, Christopher Buckley, the son of the famous William F. Buckley, the founder of the National Review, and Christopher Buckley is also part owner of the National Review, had a column, also endorsed Obama, and he says that decision was not appreciated by everyone. And Kathleen Parker, who's also a conservative writer, who also criticized Sarah Palin, I don't believe she's endorsed Obama or criticized Sarah Palin, says that she's gotten something like 12,000 Emails saying similar things that people have been saying to Mr. Harris, like your mother should've aborted you or something. What about you? I mean, how was your - have you gotten reaction from starting this organization?
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, from the beginning, we got hate mail. I mean, it comes in spurts, but I will say some days we have 10 to 20 batches of hate mail coming in.
MARTIN: What do people say?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I have one right here. I'd like to read a couple lines to you. Why are you supporting someone who refuses to submit valid proof of citizenship to prove that they are eligible under the U.S. constitution to be president of our United States of America. So, it's pretty much these conspiracy theorists, who I guess have read some viral Emails or read something online, and to think that Barack Obama either didn't go to college or isn't a U.S. citizen, really, they center around that sort of thing.
MARTIN: What about toward you? Is there anything personally directed toward you? As you heard Mr. Harris say, some people are very upset with him because he's an African-American. They don't appreciate his, what they feel is breaking ranks. What about you?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, people tell me that I'm not a Republican. They say I shouldn't be a Republican. But it's really amazing because, I mean, the people in our organization are people who want to stay in the Republican Party. I mean, as I'm sure you're aware, over the past four years, 25 percent of Republicans have just left and become independents. But we're actually the people who want to stay in the party, feel as though the party can reform itself. However, just this one time, we are supporting a Democrat.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking to John Martin and James T. Harris about voting out of the box, which is to say, folks who have crossed party or racial lines this year and are causing their friends and associates some angst about that. We'd like to hear from you. Are you a Republican for Obama? Are you an African-American for McCain? Are you a conservative woman who can't stand Sarah Palin? Or how about a Liberal or progressive voter who supports the Palin-McCain ticket, or rather, the McCain-Palin ticket? We'd like to hear from you. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. You can also write to the Tell Me More page at npr.org and blog it out. Mr. Harris, I want to ask both of you, what do you make of this? I mean, James Harris, you could sort of see there's a racial loyalty question being addressed in your case, but what do you make of the reaction that you're getting?
Mr. HARRIS: I think that America's going into a new season of winter. In my consulting and speaking business, I talk about how there's four seasons in history, and I think we are definitely heading into a crisis period in which there is a lot of fear and anxiety and people do not trust their institutions. And people are moving away from ideology towards the middle looking for something to grasp on to, to give them hope for the future. This is not - you've heard the phrase history repeats itself. I teach that history doesn't repeat. It rhymes. We've seen this type of thing before, but to be caught up in the middle of it, usually I'm observing. But now, I find myself at ground zero on a very contentious emotional election.
MARTIN: You know what's interesting though? But I am feeling, forgive me, I feel an inherent contradiction on what you just said on the one you are saying with coming in to a winter which suggest that sort of a negativity. I mean, people might view it the opposite way. Is it actually a period of great sort of excitement and desire to move toward consensus and that the people are attacking you are sort of part of the fringe that's being left behind. I don't know.
Mr. HARRIS: There could be excitement in winter. I mean, we have Christmas and people go sledding, but it's a purposeful period. Last time we had a great winter in America was the Great Depression and World War II. I am suggesting and have been for the last six years that we're moving into a period like that again. And if you were on the verge of retirement as of last week Monday, that's not the case anymore because you took a huge financial hit. Yeah, there are changes coming in. Some people are excited about it but overall as country, we're going to have to address some very serious questions in the next few years.
MARTIN: But what does it have to do with calling you names and all this?
Mr. HARRIS: You ask for a broader picture.
MARTIN: OK. All right I see, all right. Let me get Mr. John - let me get John Martin in this. What do you make of it, John Martin?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think Mr. Harris is right. I think we're definitely moving away from ideology which is why Barack Obama has such appeal with independents, former conservative independents and Republicans. I mean, he's gotten incredible support from big names in the Republican Party and people who are conservatives as you mentioned a few of them already. So, people like former Congressman (unintelligible), former Senator Chafee, the granddaughter of Dwight Eisenhower, the daughter of Richard Nixon has donated at the maximum to Barack Obama's campaign. So, I think people are looking for something different. They're sick of the politics of division that has characterized our country for the past 20 years. And Barack Obama does not play that game. He as you mentioned before...
Mr. HARRIS: May I comment on that?
Mr. MARTIN: He aggressively reaches out to people throughout the political...
MARTIN: We only have a minute left, so I want to hear from each of you briefly. If you had to do it all over again would you still do it, John Martin?
Mr. MARTIN: Support Barack?
Mr. MARTIN: Absolutely. He's been - he's actually been more aggressive in courting Republicans than I even expected. I did not expect this and I am confident that he is going to have a Republicans in his cabinet and he will be consulting them throughout his presidency.
MARTIN: OK. James T. Harris, if you had to do it all over again, would you do it?
Mr. HARRIS: I would have said the same thing and more and I agree with John, as far as - my can as well will be reason to cross aisle. He's right. This thing is cutting across generational lines. This is the - this, the election, will be decided along generational lines more so than any other election in our history. And Barack Obama is pulling in the younger vote and Senator McCain is pulling in the older vote, and the undecideds, in the middle, are really a bunch of generation Xers and older or as you say, younger boomers and their going to call this election.
MARTIN: OK. James T. Harris hosts the radio program, the National Conversation with James T. Harris in Milwaukee. He was kind enough to join us from there. John Martin is the founder of Republicans for Obama. He joined us from our New York bureau. Gentleman, I thank you both so much.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. HARRIS: Conversation is the spice of life.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.