The Faces of GOP Black Outreach May Be Sending the Wrong Message

Seasoned Black Republicans say outreach must include people with a wider net of influence.

Posted: 06/20/2013 11:36 AM EDT

E.W. Jackson, a candidate for Virginia's lieutenant governor. (Photo: Courtesy of E.W. Jackson)

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part feature on the Republican National Committee's Black voter outreach effort. Part one can be viewed here.

In all fairness, the Republican Party's Black voter outreach effort is still in the early stage. But if the way it's starting out is representative of the way it means to go, some African-American members are already thinking, "GOP, we may have a problem."

Earlier this month, the Virginia Republican Party tapped Rev. Joe Ellison to be its new director of African-American engagement. Like E.W. Jackson, the commonwealth's incendiary candidate for lieutenant governor, Ellison is not without controversy. In 2010, for example, he supported evangelist Pat Robertson's claim that the earthquake that devastated Haiti occurred because the nation had made a "pact with the devil" by embracing voodoo.

While the decision to hire Ellison was a local one, it can be viewed as symptomatic of a similar problem in the national office, according to African-American Republicans who spoke to BET.com both on and off the record.

Recently, conservatives were dismayed to learn that Amani Council, who is in charge of communications for the Republican National Committee's Black voter outreach, only recently changed her party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. This, in addition to what some consider to be a thin résumé, indicates a lack of seriousness on the part of the RNC, they say.

"I felt like I was on an episode of Punk'd," said one Black Republican.

Council acknowledges making the switch just before starting her new job at the RNC. She also insists it's not a big deal because of her work in Republican congressional offices and as a consultant for conservative causes.

But, according to a Republican strategist, who requested anonymity, the revelation created quite the stir. An anxious Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director, sent an email to concerned parties asking that they "please keep a tight lid on this."

In addition to Council, the outreach team includes Kristal Quarker-Hartsfield, who heads up the political arm; and Raffi Williams, whose focus is the youth vote.

They are "bright young things," most agree, but there is real concern that they don't yet have the experience or the gravitas to effectively sell the Republican message in African-American communities. As a result, they haven't been given any autonomy or control.

"It's frustrating to me because we have a compelling story to tell Americans across the spectrum — Black, white, Asian, poor or rich — and moves like this chip away at our credibility," said the "punk'd" Republican.

Perhaps more worrying, the strategist and others say, the RNC passed over more seasoned candidates who'd hoped to help launch the outreach initiative, which, months after the outreach effort was announced, still has them scratching their heads.

Florida-based attorney Levi Williams has mixed views. Citing the relative youth of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, he says he doesn't begrudge the young hires.

"You know, my old behind is not going to convince a 17-year-old to vote Republican next year, but a 24-year-old might," he said. "But I can reach the older, professional, Black Democrats and independents who have gone through life, who have experienced what I have experienced. Those are the most likely voters."

Williams would like the RNC to work more closely with seasoned Black Republicans "who have been in the trenches the longest" and who have a "wider net of influence and reach."

The Republican strategist agrees.

"They're going to have to engage some serious players from the Black community. You can't just reach out to Black people for the sake of reaching out. We only understand Black leadership as the Black church or black political community," the strategist said. "But there's a whole sector of men and women who are doing amazing things in business for Black people, with Black people through Black people who have never been engaged by Republicans and Democrats."

Another concern is the RNC's financial commitment. At first blush, $10 million seems like a lot of money. But, when one considers that the pot will be used to court African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native-Americans, it doesn't seem quite so generous.

"They're going to have to stretch that a long way if they're going to have serious outreach in all of those communities," said Washington consultant Huey Newsome.

Williams thinks the budget is kind of insulting, particularly in light of the millions he's seen spent on cultivating Latino voters.

"They marginalize the outcome by either underfunding or not providing the resources necessary" to be successful, he said.

According to David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the budget could be limitless, but with people like Ellison, Jackson and myriad white Republicans making headlines around the nation with their inflammatory remarks, it won't get far in terms of outreach.

"They could spend $10 million a month on Black outreach," he said. "But there is nothing they can do while they welcome and have these people who are clearly and unequivocally racist in official positions. They're not maybe racists. They're racist."

Note: RNC communications director Sean Spicer contacted BET.com and adamantly denied sending an email expressing concern about Amani Council's political affiliation, which he says he was aware of before hiring her. In addition, the anonymous source was unable to reproduce a copy of the alleged email.

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