Does the GOP Need Lessons in Black Voter Outreach?

African-American conservatives say the Republican National Committee could use some sensitivity training.

Posted: 09/09/2013 10:40 AM EDT

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part feature about how the Republican National Committee's Black voter outreach is progressing. Part two can be viewed here.

Since Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus embarked on a nationwide journey this year to bring more African-Americans into the GOP fold, his party may have earned more black eyes than supporters.

The effort was immediately applauded by African-American conservatives, and still is, but from the start they've had several concerns and still do.

A major concern was the inexperienced staff hired to lead Black voter outreach. Soon after Amani Council was tapped as communications director, news broke that she had changed her political affiliation from D to R just before taking the job. Then, within a few months, she was gone.

The Party line was that Council had resigned, but according to sources who spoke to BET.com both on and off the record, she was forced out because of the affiliation gaffe and her inexperience.

"She has completely disappeared and the rumors are starting to flow in the conservative Black community," wrote one Black Republican in an email to Priebus and RNC communications director Sean Spicer. "I told [Priebus] that just having Black faces on the staff will not attract Black voters, he needs Black voices with a résumé in the Black community and respected by that community."

During Council's tenure Priebus also experienced an embarrassing turn on the Tom Joyner Morning Show when he unsuccessfully tried to defend Republican efforts in states across the nation to enforce new voting laws and procedures. The civil rights community believes these laws will disenfranchise African-Americans and other demographic groups that tend to vote for Democrats.

Voting rights is a sensitive issue for Blacks and civil rights groups and activists that Priebus continues to struggle with. While it's true that Americans are required to produce photo IDs for various transactions, GOP-led state legislatures have also sought to implement other seemingly punitive measures that make casting ballots less convenient, from shortening early voting periods to ending decades-long traditions of Black churches leading souls to the polls on the Sunday before Election Day.

When asked recently by BET.com to defend those efforts, Priebus went on auto-pilot. Instead of offering an explanation, he spoke about striking a balance between making sure someone is who they say they are and voting where they say they live. Priebus also praised legislators like Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who make it easier for people to acquire the IDs they need to present at the polls.

"I don't think the issue is early voting or photo ID, the issue is we have to be a party that gets into the communities, gets to know people on a year-round basis and builds relationships," he said.

But before he can build those relationships, Black conservatives argue, the party desperately needs to develop a deeper understanding of the African-American community and where it stands on core issues.

"It's a perception problem. The RNC can do polling very, very well and find out how African-Americans feel about issues like voter ID laws, and if they do the numbers they'll find out that to many African-Americans it is offensive and reminds them of a time before the Voting Rights Act," said Maryland pastor Darryl Williams. "So you can't have it both ways. You can't reach out to African-Americans for your cause and ignore their feelings about issues."

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(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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