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Black Interests Try to Get a Political Grip : African Americans: To some, congressional change heralds a lonely fight for social policies. Others see doors of power opening for conservatives.


WASHINGTON — As they come to grips with the changed congressional landscape, organizations representing African Americans are groping for a new strategy to advance their interests.

Some--like Wade Henderson, Washington director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People--have begun planning the unimaginable: He is seeking issues where the civil rights group can form coalitions with GOP leaders.

"It's going to be necessary to cultivate more access and involvement with the Republican leadership," Henderson said, adding that points of common interest have yet to be defined or suggested to the incoming congressional leaders. "That's going to require our opening doors we've never considered crossing."

While many black lawmakers were pumped up two years ago by the election of the first Democrat to the White House in more than a decade, they now find themselves stripped of many of their congressional allies and stunned by a seeming national rejection of social policies that they believed could be enacted.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 17, 1994 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Black politics--A story in Friday's editions stated that National Minority Politics magazine is published in Arlington, Va. It is is published in Houston.

The sweeping change in Congress came as a humbling reversal for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are overwhelmingly Democrats and will have to surrender three committee chairs and 17 subcommittee chairs to Republicans in the 104th Congress.

"The Congressional Black Caucus will become a non-player because no one will need their votes anymore," said Raynard Jackson, Washington bureau chief of National Minority Politics, a conservative black-owned magazine published in Arlington, Va. "The White House is going to move away from the black caucus to appeal to the center of the nation and the Republicans can pass anything they want without a single vote from the Democrats in the Black Caucus."

But others saw opportunity.

"The results of the elections made it respectable for blacks to be conservative and Republican," said Armstrong Williams, a Washington-based black radio talk-show host. "Black Americans can come home. They can come out of the kitchens of the Democratic Party."

Armstrong pointed to the strong showings of black Republicans in the midterm elections as proof of opportunities for blacks within the GOP. In particular, he said, the election of former Oklahoma University football star J.C. Watts to a seat in Congress as a Republican and the reelection of Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) illustrates the willingness of whites to vote for blacks who have conservative values. Both Watts and Franks represent majority white districts.

"It's not about race, it's about old-fashioned, conservative values and beliefs in the Creator," Armstrong said.

Willie Richardson, publisher of National Minority Politics, said that politically active blacks will find over the next two years that they will have more opportunities to advance within the GOP than in the Democratic Party. He said that Democrats take black participation for granted because blacks tend to overlook Republican candidates and vote blindly for Democrats.

But, he said, this year's election shows that is changing. Twenty-two blacks ran for House seats on the GOP ticket, up from 15 in 1992. More importantly, he said, eight of the candidates won at least 40% of the votes in their races, a remarkable feat because most of them were running against black Democrats and because black voters tend to give GOP candidates only about 10% of their votes.

Others glumly predict that black lawmakers and their constituents will find few sympathetic ears within the Clinton Administration or among congressional leaders--Democrats or Republicans--as they fight to maintain policies and programs supported by their constituents.

"This new situation is certain to pose a new challenge because it raises questions about how blacks relate to the Administration, which we expect will move to the right and away from our concerns," said Linda Faye Williams, who heads the Institute for Policy and Education at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

"The same can be said of Congress. Even the Democrats who were our allies will be rushing to the center and away from anything that smacks of liberal or special interests. Right now, we don't know whether we have foes or allies."

Specifically, Williams said, black lawmakers expect a lonely fight as they struggle to hold on to voting rights laws and try to prevent enactment of laws that might disproportionately harm blacks, such as on welfare, crime and other social policies.

Keith Reeves, assistant professor of electoral politics and public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said that he fears black Americans may consider politics not worth their time if their choice is between supporting Republicans intent on reversing social policies and right-tilting Democrats who fail to support black concerns.

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