3 candidates hope to become first blacks on GOP side of House in 56 years


WASHINGTON -- Three black Republican candidates for Congress envisage themselves becoming the first of their race to sit on the GOP side of the House of Representatives in 56 years -- and there are indications that at least two of them have a 50-50 chance of getting there.

Gary Franks, 37, a three-term city alderman in Waterbury, Conn., said in Washington recently that his polls have shown him to be in a "virtual dead heat" with his opponent in Connecticut's 5th Congressional District, Democrat Toby Moffett.

Mr. Moffett's campaign manager, Jay Marlin, said by telephone from Waterbury that he had a copy of Mr. Franks' private poll results and that Mr. Franks was "misrepresenting his own figures." But Mr. Marlin acknowledged that the race will get "significantly close" as the election approaches.

The second hopeful is J. Kenneth Blackwell, 42, former mayor of Cincinnati. Mr. Blackwell reported that he was "a few points up" on his opponent, Democrat Charles Luken, the city's current mayor, in the race for Ohio's 1st District seat.

Mr. Luken disagreed in a telephone interview, saying that his polls -- which he would not release -- showed different results from Mr. Blackwell's. However, Al Tuchfarber, a poll analyst at the University of Cincinnati, said Mr. Blackwell's results "ring true."

Even at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, according to a committee spokeswoman, analysts are regarding both of the races as "tossups."

In Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District, the picture did not seem as bright for Al Brown, 45, owner of a management consulting firm in Louisville -- and the only one of the three black candidates who has not previously held elective office.

Mr. Brown admitted that he was not ahead of his opponent, Representative Romano L. Mazzoli, a 10-term Democratic incumbent, but he said he was "in striking distance." Mr. Mazzoli's campaign manager, Tony Weiter, dismissed Mr. Brown's challenge as "not even close."

Meanwhile, both President Bush and the Republican National Committee have been trying to improve the odds for the trio.

The RNC, which sponsored a recent fund-raising dinner in Washington for the three, introduced them at a news conference as "three of the best candidates we've ever had."

Whether any of them gets elected may have little or nothing to do with their color. "Our electorate is not looking at what color we are," said Mr. Brown.

All three also are running in districts where blacks make up only a small minority of the electorate -- from 4 percent in the Connecticut district to 18 percent in the Louisville area.

Mr. Franks faces an accomplished vote-getter in Mr. Moffett, who has previously won election to Congress four times, but from another district. Mr. Brown faces the 20-year congressional incumbency of Mr. Mazzoli -- and House incumbents rarely lose. jTC Mr. Blackwell faces what one analyst described as Mr. Luken's "quasi-incumbency" -- he is the son of the current holder of the contested congressional seat, Representative Thomas A. Luken, who is retiring after 14 years in office.

In any event, all three are running on the same political track: conservatism. Mr. Franks, a scholar-athlete graduate of Yale University who owns a real estate investment firm, described himself as a "fiscal conservative" who is running against "a tax-and-spend liberal of the '70s," as he painted Mr. Moffett.

And all three say they support President Bush's threatened veto of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1990. Mr. Bush has said he would veto the measure on grounds that it is a "quota bill," despite the fact that it is supported by a number of moderate Republicans in the House and despite warnings from civil rights groups that a veto would doom his relations with them.

The three candidates say they look forward to joining the Congressional Black Caucus upon election. The caucus consists of all black members of the House -- currently 24 Democrats. The last black Republican to sit in the House was Oscar de Priest of Chicago, who was elected in 1928 and served three terms -- long before the 20-year-old caucus came into existence.

Mr. Blackwell said the three would "bring a breath of fresh air to the Black Caucus."

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