Republican leaders commemorate King as they struggle to reach black voters

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 26, 2013 

The Martin Luther King monument in Washington D.C.

TISH WELLS — McClatchy

— As thousands of people congregate in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Republican Party leaders met to once again take a new step forward engaging black voters.

It’s been decades since the days of overwhelming black support for the party of Abraham Lincoln. Instead, national exit polls showed that 93 percent of black voters cast their vote for President Barack Obama in his 2012 re-election.

“Our party has a rich, proud history of equality, freedom, opportunity,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Monday at a luncheon commemorating the March on Washington. “But we don’t tell our story anymore. We’ve lost the history of this party, because we don’t tell it.”

Priebus was joined at the event by Republican leaders, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who helped lead the past two reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act. In his remarks, Sensenbrenner committed to restoring the legislation, which aims to protect minority voters from discrimination in access to the polls, after a pivotal piece was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

“The first thing we have to do is take the monkey wrench that the court threw in it, out of the Voting Rights Act, and then use that monkey wrench to be able to fix it so that it is alive, well, constitutional and impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects,” Sensenbrenner said.

The issue of voting rights has become politicized, with Republicans fighting to buck the notion that they are against the protections. Republican-controlled states including Texas, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama passed or pushed forward more rigorous voter ID laws after the Supreme Court decision, drawing a sharp contrast to remarks by the Republican establishment. Priebus also stated his support for voting rights protections at the luncheon.

Michael Steele, who served as the chairman of the RNC before Priebus, the first African-American to fulfill that role, said that the GOP must dispel the “genuine” perception held by many that Republicans condone voter suppression and get serious on their support for voting rights.

“I hear what you are saying at a luncheon. . . . I appreciate the sentiment, I’m a huge admirer of Mr. Sensenbrenner,” Steele said. “But OK, let’s start with a group of senators and House Republicans introducing the next version of the Voting Rights Act, instead of introducing bills calling for an investigation into Barack Obama’s birth certificate.”

But Steele said that at this point “yet another restart, yet another luncheon, yet another conversation (has) gotten old.” The GOP has recently made multiple efforts to reach out to black voters, but Steele said that in his view, real outreach starts from the ground up, not from the top down.

“I don’t think you can do this from the national level,” he said. “This is not about the national party dropping dollars into a state; it’s about how well a state is going to commit itself to actually doing the hard work of rebuilding and rebranding the party with a community that it has lost face with for over 50 years.”

The party’s current plans play off of that ground-up approach, hiring “RNC ambassadors” across the country to engage with communities, RNC deputy press secretary Raffi Williams said in an email.

Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the party’s willingness to address these issues “heartening.”

“The question now before us is, which party will lead on the agenda that’s so crucial to our communities?” he asked. “Who’s going to talk about the fact that over 60 percent of our children are raised in households that are at or below the poverty line – and not just talk about it, do something about it?”

Email: bkamisar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @bkamisar

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