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Politics Mondays: Florida State GOP Hopes To Build On Governor Crist’s Inroads With Black Voters by Brendan Farrington

The state GOP held its first black Republican conference Friday with the hope of riding the inroads Gov. Charlie Crist has made with black voters.

And though there’s no doubt the party’s outreach efforts are increasing, it’s questionable how much Crist’s popularity will translate to an overall boost among a group that overwhelmingly votes Democrat.

About 150 blacks attended the conference after the party sent out invitations statewide and advertised the event in black newspapers. The conference included luncheon speeches by Crist and state party Chairman Jim Greer, followed by a panel discussion featuring football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and others.

“If you live in Florida, we want you. We Republicans welcome you with open arms and open hearts,” Crist told the group. “We need to embrace everyone. We need to reach out to all people — tell them that the Republican Party takes no one for granted.”

Crist is a rarity in his party. He earned 18 percent of the black vote, triple what Gov. Jeb Bush received in his 2002 re-election and double what a Republican typically receives in a statewide election.

Since his election, he’s repeatedly earned praise from Democratic black lawmakers for taking on issues important to them. Greer, who was Crist’s pick to run the party, said on his first day as chairman that the party needed to reach out to minorities.

The party has since created a leadership council to serve as a liaison to black communities, as well as a minority outreach office.

“The future of our party and its success is a commitment to minority outreach,” Greer said. “African-American voters must be an active participant in our party’s dialogue and debate.”

Blacks make up less than 2 percent of all registered Republicans, and less than 6 percent of registered black voters are Republican, according to figures from last year’s general election.

Although Crist is gaining ground with black voters, that won’t mean a large shift from those overall numbers, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who watched the conference from a media area.

But given that Florida decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes, any gains the party can make are important.

“This is all about incrementalism, and peeling off and making small gains and trying to be competitive in what promises to be a very, very competitive election in Florida,” MacManus said. “You cannot be in a position where you don’t try.”

James Harris, a lobbyist who has done black voter outreach for Democratic U.S. senators, worked to get Crist elected last fall, but he says he firmly remains a Democrat.

“You can talk it, and they have a leader who walks it, but I can’t name another Republican that would get 8, 10, 15 percent of the African American vote,” Harris said. “You really have to show me something that will allow me to believe that there is a a change in what I know the Republican party to be.”

Conference attendees were already sold on the idea of being Republican. Still, state Rep. Jennifer Carroll, who is the Legislature’s only black Republican, said the conference was a step toward building numbers.

“In order for us to go out and ask others to come in and share with others the experience that we’re sharing, we first need to talk from within,” she said.

Carroll, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams and Swann, who lost the Pennsylvania governor’s race to Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell, were among panelists that talked about why they are Republican. Each said their personal values match up with the party.

“This is a party that celebrates its faith,” Williams said.

This article was published by The Associated Press

Monday, November 19, 2007

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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