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The rise of black Republicans

| Sunday, April 27, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Last year three blacks running statewide for offices in the same state were all elected, something that has never happened before in any state, even during Reconstruction. They are Democrats, and the state is one of those proudly, reliably liberal ones -- Massachusetts, perhaps, or California, right?

Wrong. The state was Texas, and all three winners are Republicans. Their successes suggest how Republicans might make modest progress with black voters. Modest progress -- say, 15 percent rather than 8 percent of the black vote -- could have large effects.

Two of the Texans -- Wallace Jefferson and Dale Wainwright -- were elected to the state Supreme Court, which has nine justices. The third is Michael Williams, 49, who in 1998 became the state's first black to hold a statewide executive position when he was appointed by Gov. George W. Bush to complete the unexpired term of a departed member of the Texas Railroad Commission. He was elected to the commission in 2000 and re-elected last year.

The commission has precious little to do with railroads. It regulates the state's oil and gas industries. Which is to say, it matters. Williams was here recently on errands both energy-related and political, wearing a big bow tie and a bigger smile, anticipating those modest gains.

Being born in Midland, Texas, was a shrewd career move by Williams, who returned there after attending the University of Southern California and staying there for law school. In 1978, at age 25, he ran for county attorney in Midland, and was, he cheerfully says, "slaughtered." Part of the problem may have been his campaign manager, a callow whippersnapper named George W. Bush. Williams, his head then adorned by a lush Afro, persevered.

In 1990 the first President Bush appointed Williams as assistant secretary of education for civil rights, and he soon riled the civil rights lobby by ruling that college scholarships exclusively for minorities are illegal. Today his head is shaved and full of thoughts about how Republicans can make inroads with black voters. This, he says, is how -- slowly, state by state, with statewide candidates. Ken Blackwell agrees.

Blackwell, another Republican, is Ohio's secretary of state and the nation's senior, in length of service, black holder of a statewide office. He was elected Ohio's treasurer in 1994, when he became the first Ohio black elected to statewide executive office. A conservative who supported Steve Forbes for the 2000 presidential nomination, Blackwell notes that if Al Gore had received the votes Ohioans gave Ralph Nader, Bush would have carried the state by just 1 percentage point instead of four. So it might be momentous if in 2004 Bush increases his share of Ohio's black vote from 9 percent to, say, 15 percent.

Winning re-election last year, Blackwell won 50 percent of the black vote, but does not think this helped the gubernatorial candidate at the top of the Republican ticket, Bob Taft, who won without significant black support. However, Blackwell believes that his own statewide success made it easier for Taft to select a black, Jennette Bradley, as his running mate for lieutenant governor.

The second black elected lieutenant governor last year is Michael Steele, the first black ever elected statewide in Maryland. Steele is a Republican (as was the only black elected lieutenant governor in 1998 -- Joe Rogers in Colorado). Robert Ehrlich, who selected Steele and is now governor, may have received as much as 14 percent of the black vote, while his opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, did not get the black turnout she needed.

Before the 2000 election, the most prominent black person in public life was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is prominent because of a Republican, the first President Bush. Never have blacks been as prominent in a presidential administration as they are in the current one, given the war against terrorism and the prominence of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in the waging of it. Before the war eclipsed domestic policy, the president was particularly interested in education policy, which is the purview of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, also black.

Britain's Conservative Party gave the country a Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and a woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The second black elected governor of an American state since Reconstruction -- Douglas Wilder was elected Virginia's governor in 1989 -- may come from America's conservative party, the ranks of whose elected and appointed officials are decreasingly monochrome. And the successes of black Republicans in statewide elections will begin to produce modest -- and tremendously consequential -- Republican gains among blacks in presidential elections.

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