Watts Steps Up GOP Minority Outreach Efforts By Kerry L. Kantin
In a bid to boost the GOP's traditionally low standing among minorities, House Republican Conference Chairman Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.) is launching a major outreach effort to minority communities.
As part of Black History Month, Watts will head the second annual Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) summit Feb. 13. The Capitol Hill summit is part of a joint effort with the White House, which is holding its "HBCU Week" Feb. 11-15.
In March, Watts will begin taking Sen. John McCain-style bus tours to "battleground" districts, focusing on reaching out to minority voters. He will begin in the Northeast then move to the Southern and Western regions of the country.
About 120 HBCU presidents and all members of the House Republican Conference have been invited to the HBCU forum, which will present breakout sessions on four topics: education, technology, appropriations and agriculture. It differs from last year's summit, which focused on fostering a relationship between the Republican Congress and the college presidents.
"It helps raise the conscience level of the decisionmakers in Washington of the importance of HBCUs," Watts said, adding that he is pleased by the White House's involvement and the additional $12 million for historically black and Hispanic colleges and universities in Bush's budget.
"I think they haven't often had the opportunity to tell their side of the story," he added. "This summit gives them an opportunity to have time with people who appropriate education dollars and [other congressional leaders]."
Dr. Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, said one message he wants to send to Congress is the importance of federal aid for HBCUs.
"Federal support is critical to our viability," said Lomax. "Over 90 percent of our students rely on federal aid. We couldn't educate students without those loans."
Dr. Ernest Holloway, president of Oklahoma's Langston University, said he welcomes the opportunity to build bridges with the GOP.
"I would say, historically, it would be safe to say that we have had more interaction with the Democratic leadership in the past," he said. "This interaction is very important to us."
Politically, Watts is going begin revving up his revamped political machine.
Last year he reorganized his leadership political action committee (PAC), placing a greater emphasis on grassroots minority outreach efforts. He tapped Michael Steele, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, who is African-American, to head the PAC.
"When standing in the grocery line, people recognize you and start talking about issues," Watts said of the bus tour and other grassroots efforts. "I know the importance of being face-to-face with voters."
Republicans, however, have a long way to go, especially with President Bush garnering less than 10 percent of the black vote in November 2000.
Watts said he plans to talk about Republican accomplishments to woo voters of all backgrounds. He attributed the GOP's poor record in minority communities to the lack of a strong outreach effort.
"I don't think you're going to see Americans of African decent voting Republican in droves," he said, "but I think we need to start somewhere."
"I believe the GOP did not do as good of a job as it could have in communicating to people where they were: the kitchen table," agreed Steele.
"We let ourselves be defined as the rich and corporate America."
Democrats, however, remain skeptical of Watts' and the GOP's focus on minority groups in 2002.
"I'm not very encouraged by the outreach efforts, because they are not backed up by policy," said Devona Dolliole, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), pointing to November 2000. "[African-Americans] voted based on policy, based on the agenda, rather than gimmicks and fanfare."
The CBC also has a series of events planned for Black History Month. Dolliole said the CBC is co-hosting with the cable network HBO the premier of "Lumumba," a film about the life and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo.
The CBC also will also host an event with the women of the caucus at American University's Women and Politics Institute, as well as a district-centered campaign to promote healthy living among African-Americans, especially in areas disproportionately affected by diseases like prostate cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
Watts also said he is "optimistic" that a task force charged with examining the contributions of black slaves in the building of the Capitol will begin meeting next month.
Watts and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) called for such a task force after a journalist discovered that black slaves provided the majority of the workers who built the Capitol and the White House.
Kerry L. Kantin
Thursday, January 24, 2002