Will the Real Rick Santorum Please Stand Up?

African-Americans may be surprised to learn the former senator has often had their back.

Posted: 03/15/2012 10:15 AM EDT
Rick Santorum

For months, Rick Santorum has worked overtime to distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican presidential pack. Frequently citing his grandfather Pietro Santorum, an Italian immigrant who worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines, he says that the nation needs a leader “who comes from the coal fields, who comes from the steel mills, who understands what the average working people in America need to be able to provide for themselves and their families.”

 

The blue-collar electorate, for whom President Obama holds little appeal, and that has been pushing Republican candidates farther and farther to the right, eat that sort of thing up, leading Santorum to feed them some really red meat by making comments as he did in January when he offered to help African-Americans become less dependent on food stamps or using coded language that suggests Obama is too “different” to be trusted.

 

And to hear the self-proclaimed fiscal conservative tell it, the federal government needs to take at least four giant steps backward from the housing market, public education and health care, leaving the most vulnerable communities to essentially fend for themselves. In addition, he’s got some wildly outdated ideas about women and the workplace. In an ideal Santorum world, they’d stay at home churning out babies while the men bring home the bacon.

 

Like most politicians, Santorum, a trained lawyer whose parents worked as a psychologist and a nurse — not in the mines, is a study in contradictions. According to a former Senate leadership aide, who asked to not be named, African-Americans would be surprised to learn that during his time on Capitol Hill, Santorum was deeply committed to communities of color and “trying to understand the unique challenges they go through as it relates to racism and historical prejudice.”

 

The aide, who is African-American, told BET.com that Santorum hired six welfare recipients to work on his congressional staff so they could use their personal experiences to help others get off of welfare. He also worked extensively with leaders in Chester, Pennsylvania, a predominately Black suburb of Philadelphia, to battle a corrupt school district and budget deficits and has developed strong bonds with the Black clergy in the Philadelphia region.

 

The area’s two HBCUs, Cheyney University and Lincoln University, also have been able to count on him for support. And, in partnership with then Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, Santorum served as the Senate representative for the House Republican-Historically Black Colleges Summit, an initiative that helped the schools’ leaders gain access to Capitol Hill resources, committees, lawmakers and industry to improve their institutions.

 

There are three important things voters need to understand about Santorum, the aide added.

 

“First and foremost, he is a man of God, believes very strongly in religion and is guided by his religion. He’s not someone who shrinks away from faith; he embraces it,” the aide said. “The second thing is that family is extremely important to him. And because of those two things, he really is compassionate. He may be inartful in terms of how he articulates his [views] but he really is a compassionate person at heart.”

 

Santorum’s former aide is betting that his staying power will be a lot stronger than previous temporary frontrunners because he’s both genuine and tenacious, which enabled him to twice be elected to represent a very Democratic state in the House and be elected statewide to the Senate.

 

“People underestimate him. They laugh at him and say he’s too extreme, but he wins,” the aide said. “He understands the relationships you have to establish and that to get things done, especially in Pennsylvania, you have to work with Democrats.”

 

One of Santorum’s greatest strengths, according to the aide, is his willingness to unapologetically speak his mind, consequences be damned, which is also a weakness. But voters are finding such honesty refreshing.

 

“A lot of people say ‘You’re speaking what I’m thinking. Thanks for saying what the others won’t’,” the aide said.

 

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(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

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