Rev. Dr. Alveda King, niece of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., traveled to Baltimore to participate in a series of NAACP events with support from the Republican Party. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Leaders of the Maryland Republican Party went to Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore on Wednesday with a message: Give us a chance.
The party paid for a Republican civil rights activist from the South — a niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — to travel to Baltimore this week for events looking at issues highlighted by the death of Freddie Gray. The activities were sponsored by the NAACP, but the Republicans participated.
After years of poverty and high crime in a city led for decades by Democrats, GOP officials say they're hoping Baltimore voters will embrace their message of pro-business policies and personal responsibility.
"The first thing is showing them the Republican Party is out there listening to their concerns," said Joe Cluster, director of the Maryland GOP. "These communities haven't been represented by a Republican in years. The Republican Party isn't going to ignore them. We're going to hear how we can best come together and show there is an alternate party besides the Democrats."
The party's guest, the Rev. Alveda King, was joined by the Rev. C.L. Bryant of Louisiana, another Republican and civil rights leader whose trip was funded by the conservative group FreedomWorks.
The civil rights leaders visited the NAACP Sandtown satellite office for a community discussion Tuesday, then attended the Baltimore County GOP Lincoln Reagan dinner at Martin's West, where presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke.
On Wednesday, both King and Bryant participated a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at the University of Baltimore. They then met with members of the Pennsylvania Avenue community in West Baltimore before heading to a community gathering at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore.
"The free-market system is something that folks have not been taking advantage of in this community," Bryant said on Pennsylvania Avenue, before talking with a grandfather and some elementary school students. "You have young men selling drugs. The mentality of entrepreneurship is there. The wrong method is being used."
He said he grew up in the segregated South but thinks the playing field in the country is now even enough that African-Americans can succeed through hard work.
"Yes the playing field was unlevel in this country," Bryant said. "When I grew up, I drank from black water fountains. I've ridden on the back of the bus. In 2015, those things that were not possible for me to do as a black man are indeed possible for me to do right now, if I want to do it. That's the difference."
Hassan Giordano, a member of the Baltimore NAACP's executive board, said the civil rights organization is hosting events aimed at improving conditions for Baltimoreans. Despite the assistance from the GOP, the NAACP is not engaging in partisan politics, he said.
"I don't care who helps, as long as somebody helps," Giordano said. He noted that the organization recently opened an office in Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray was arrested. Gray's death in police custody set off protests and drew national attention to problems in poor city neighborhoods.
Giordano said several Republican leaders have visited the Sandtown office, including Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford.
"Since we opened the Sandtown office, not one Democrat other than Del. Antonio Hayes has been there," Giordano said.
Still, the state's Democratic Party saw the Republican-supported events as opportunistic.
D. Bruce Poole, chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party, drew attention to King's appearances on Fox News and the conservative stance of FreedomWorks.
"When a Fox News pundit, a SuperPAC funded by billionaires, and the Maryland GOP get together... and say they are trying to 'help' Baltimore, everyone should be a little suspicious," Poole said in a statement. "They advocate for cutting taxes on millionaires, propose slashing education funds for our kids, and they want to repeal the Affordable Care Act. None of these ideas help Baltimore City. Residents and families are smart enough to see through this purely political right-wing agenda."
But Cluster said the Republican Party's standing is improving in the city. He noted that Hogan got nearly 22 percent of the Baltimore vote in last year's governor's race, and actually carried one City Council district — Southeast Baltimore's 1st District.
Cluster said he hopes the GOP will be able to run a strong candidate there next year. The incumbent councilman, Democrat James B. Kraft, has said he plans to run for a different office.
"We're making inroads all over the state, and why not the city? We got 22 percent out of the city for a gubernatorial candidate," Cluster said. "In Baltimore, people actually get to see the results of Democratic Party policies. We've had six years of no economic recovery."
Voter registration in Maryland favors Democrats by more than 2-1. In Baltimore, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 10-1.
The last time a Republican was elected to office in Baltimore was 1963, when Theodore McKeldin won the mayoral campaign.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP, said the organization is glad Republicans are volunteering to help in the city. She said her organization has helped 35 people start the process of expunging criminal records in the last week. She said expungement and voter registration are the group's two biggest goals this year.
"We want to help some of the young men to get jobs," she said.
In West Baltimore, King and Bryant talked with young people, and King told them about her uncle — donating a book on Martin Luther King to the NAACP's library.
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