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Blacks joining GOP, but worry at slow acceptance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard County's black Republicans are changing -- and in turn want their party to change.

The county GOP long has attracted the blacks who in political circles are known as "Lincoln Republicans" -- those whose Republican loyalties can be traced to the Great Emancipator.

But in the last several decades, the party has received a slow, steady infusion of younger black professionals in the county who are more aggressively seeking the economic and political power that their white counterparts enjoy.

As they make a home for themselves in the GOP, some black Republicans -- estimated at just 5 percent to 10 percent of the county's registered voters -- say the local Republican Party has been slow to recruit them and yield power to them.

For instance, there are no blacks on the county's seven-member Republican Central Committee, no black Republicans on the Howard County Council and no black Republicans in the county's state legislative delegation.

"It could do a lot more," says Verna Lawes, a black Republican on Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Board, of the party she joined in the 1980s. "I don't think there is a real desire to reach out."

Not true, says Allan Kittleman, chairman of Howard's Republican Central Committee. The local GOP is receptive, he says, but black Republicans must voice their concerns.

"We don't know the concerns of the African-American community unless we hear them," Mr. Kittleman says.

Election officials no longer keep racial statistics on voters. But political observers agree that blacks have remained a steady constituency in the county's newly ascendant Republican Party, which controls the county executive's office and last year captured a majority on the County Council for the first time.

African-American Republicans include Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing administrator, and Melvin Bilal, president of an employment staffing company in Columbia. In 1984, Mr. Bilal switched to the GOP after 20 years as a Democrat and ran in

1986 for the Maryland lieutenant governor's office on the Republican ticket.

Another prominent black Republican is Evelyn Tanner, the former Board of Appeals chairwoman. She switched from the Democratic Party last year and ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the east Columbia seat on the Howard County Council, held by Democratic incumbent C. Vernon Gray -- one of the county's two highest-ranking black politicians.

And there's Randall Keith Nixon, 38, owner of Nixon's Farm in West Friendship, who in the mid-1980s became a Republican, like his father before him.

"I was brought up to believe that the only way black people [can have] anything of significance in this country is through self-actualization," he says.

Though he doesn't agree with the national Republican Party's religious conservatives and says the GOP has been hostile toward blacks in the past, he maintains that "the positives outweigh the negatives."

Mr. Nixon's embrace of the GOP is at a time when black Republicans are gaining more prominence nationally, espousing the same economic and social views as their white counterparts.

Examples include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; Reps. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Gary A. Franks of Connecticut; and Alan L. Keyes, a Maryland resident and conservative radio commentator who is running for president.

Black Republicans in Howard County -- where the Democrats still enjoy a lead in voter registrations -- say they're attracted to the party's philosophy of free enterprise and self-reliance, and its emphasis on family values.

But in Howard, where the 1990 U.S. Census found that blacks make up 11.9 percent of the population, including the state's highest percentage of blacks earning $50,000 or more a year, black Republicans remain a small minority.

J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc., a Columbia-based political polling group, estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of Howard's registered blacks are Democrats and 5 percent to 10 percent are Republicans. Another 5 percent of county blacks are registered as independents, he estimated.

Those numbers are a stark contrast to the days before the civil rights movement, when the Republican Party in Howard and elsewhere was home to blacks alienated by a traditionally segregationist Democratic Party.

Historically, blacks were drawn to the Republican Party because President Lincoln freed the slaves, said David A. Bositis, senior political analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

During Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, many blacks switched to the Democratic Party, Mr. Bositis said. Others switched during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

Yet as late as February 1966 -- a time when the county still was keeping such statistics -- registered black Republican voters outnumbered registered black Democratic voters 931 to 451, according to county election data. White Democrats outnumbered white Republicans 10,420 to 4,635.

The gains of the civil rights movement eventually reversed that pattern, political observers say. And since then, "the number of 'Lincoln Republicans' have continually shrunk . . . through the aging process," Mr. Coker said.

He said that in Howard, older "Lincoln Republicans" are being replaced by another wave of black Republicans: "upper-class, black professionals -- doctors, lawyers, business folks, business owners, people who moved out here . . . to find the good life."

Some black Republicans suspect that their numbers are higher than what political observers estimate, but that many blacks in ,, the GOP don't publicize their affiliation -- fearing they'll be ostracized by other blacks.

"A lot of blacks have strong Republican leanings but do not identify with the Republican Party because of pressure -- peer pressure," said Michael S. Steele, a black who is chairman of Prince George's County's 14-member Republican Central Committee, which has six blacks.

But that could change if a nationally respected figure such as retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were to run for the presidency on the Republican ticket, Mr. Bilal said. "The black Republicans will come out of the woodwork," he said.

For the most part, black Republicans say the issues that concern them are the same as those of white Republicans. They want good jobs, crime-free communities and a decent education for their children. They say the party -- which now stands for aggressive cuts in social-welfare programs -- is not racist.

"Racism doesn't have any party label," Ms. Lawes said.

Yet many county Republicans acknowledge that the party must do more if it is to solidify and expand its relationship with blacks.

"We have to get out there and talk to people and try to convince them it's not healthy for every African-American to be a Democrat," Ms. Tanner said.

At the same time, some black Republicans are put off by being part of a small minority -- a situation that has led to consideration of forming their own group, or joining with black Republicans in Prince George's.

"I'm not much enamored with Howard County Republicans -- maybe because there are so few African-Americans in it," said Ms. Lawes, who doubts that a black Republican will be elected in the county in her lifetime.

More partisan observers question whether the county's Republican Party really is interested in yielding power to blacks.

Mr. Gray, for example, who received 59 percent of the vote to defeat Ms. Tanner in last year's council election, said the Republican support of her candidacy was "insincere." The GOP could have supported blacks who had a chance to win, but apparently chose not to back a strong candidate, he said.

"When you look at the number of positions that were available last time around, I know it makes me wonder," he said.

Ms. Tanner said she believes the party did support her. And Howard Republican state Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the House minority leader, insists that Ms. Tanner was "an excellent candidate" and probably lost because she entered "at the last minute," without name recognition or sufficient financial support.

For 78-year-old Leola Dorsey, a longtime Republican who lives in Guilford, there's no question about what the GOP has done for her.

In the 1960s, she was the first black woman elected to the Republican Central Committee. In the 1970s, she was the first black election book judge and first black voting machine judge. She's was one of the first county blacks to run for elected office, when she sought to become register of wills.

"The party has been good to me," said Mrs. Dorsey. "I integrated the county. . . . I thought that was terrific."

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