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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 01:00 am

Party Favors

GOP's Courtship of blacks appears to be working

“They may be our color, but they’re not our kind,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a loyal and longtime Democrat, of African-American Republicans during a television interview earlier this week.

Sharpton announced that he’d be spending the next several months traveling the country to help Democrats defeat black candidates running on Republican tickets.

Black Republicans, and those associated with conservative movements, are often maligned by blacks in the Democratic Party as sellouts and Uncle Toms, likely because they seem to have to earn their cred with whites by beating up on black folks. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, popular conservative pundit and minister Jesse Lee Peterson said that most blacks trapped by the floodwaters “were too lazy, immoral, and trifling to do anything productive for themselves.”

Nevertheless, Sharpton will have his work cut out for him. Some political analysts have dubbed 2006 as the year of the black Republican. Nearly 70 African-American Republicans are vying for offices nationwide, ranging from spots on county commissions to U.S. Senate seats.

It’s hard to say which happened first, Republicans’ getting serious about courting African-Americans or blacks’ stopping to listen to the sales pitch. Whatever the case, expect this trend to continue, especially in swing states such as Illinois, where a socially moderate brand of Republicanism appears more palatable to most blacks.

NFL Hall of Fame wideout Lynn Swann, running as a Republican, wants to be the next governor of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in blue state Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is bracing for a possible November showdown for an open U.S. Senate seat with former U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination.

In the battleground state of Ohio, three black Republicans are seeking statewide office, including gubernatorial hopeful Ken Blackwell, the current secretary of state. George W. Bush’s narrow victory there in the 2004 presidential race, some political observers calculate, could be attributed to his capturing a higher-than-average 16 percent of the state’s black vote.

The Land of Lincoln hasn’t been immune. At least three African-Americans are running for seats in the Legislature. One of them, Eric Wallace, heads the African-American Republican Council of Illinois, headquartered in Chicago, of all places. During last week’s state-fair parade, two local Republicans, state Rep. Raymond Poe and state Sen. Larry Bomke, had what seemed like large contingents of African-American supporters. Both candidates have a reputation for reaching out to Springfield’s black community.

This spring, Republicans, including state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, seized the opportunity to speak to minority state employees at the annual conference of the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government, whereas Democrats largely didn’t bother to show up.

Illinois is unique in that respect, says Candice Trees, a former Sangamon County circuit clerk who also served a stint as IAMG head and is now a Capital Township trustee.

Trees, who calls Sharpton’s characterization of black Republicans such as herself unfair, says: “We shouldn’t be chastised for having a different philosophy. This is a two-party system, and I don’t think everybody should be in one party.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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