WASHINGTON — Black Republicans, vowing to become a force in African American politics and in their party, joined hands Thursday to praise the GOP "contract with America" and unveiled a new umbrella group dedicated to winning minority support for conservative causes.
"We, over the last 30 years, have loosened our grip on the institutions that made America great--the family, the church, the community," said freshman Republican Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, who has been hailed by GOP leaders as a trailblazer in the fledgling Republican effort to reach out to African Americans.
"If we will advocate family, church, community and education over the next 30 years as fervently as we have over the last 30 years advocated the Great Society programs, I can assure you we will solve our problems," Watts said.
Watts said recent polls showed that more than one of four African Americans approve of Republican policy proposals included in the "contract with America," among them a controversial plan to strictly limit welfare. The poll, which House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) reviewed Thursday morning in a meeting with House Republicans, also showed that fewer than 50% of the African Americans surveyed disapproved of the contract.
But Willie Richardson, co-founder of the new minority umbrella group "Minority Mainstream" and publisher of a conservative magazine, said the GOP will have to step up its efforts significantly to reach out to American blacks if it wants to capture a substantial black following.
"They have a terrible, terrible reputation in the black community and they need to do something about it," Richardson said. "Am I satisfied with the efforts the Republican National Committee has made so far? No. They need to do a lot more."
Blacks represent an extremely small segment of the Republican Party at the national level. Watts is one of only two black GOP lawmakers in Congress. Gary Franks of Connecticut is the other.
Republican leaders in recent years have said they believe that the GOP could make inroads with black voters, especially in the South, where traditionally Democratic strongholds have been turning increasingly Republican.
Richardson said "Minority Mainstream" is the first national political organization of its kind. He said it would serve as a resource and funding arm for black conservative politicians at the state, local and national levels. He added that it could provide a bridge for Republicans into the black political community.
"Over the last 30 to 40 years, we have created, we have encouraged, those 16 million children to be in poverty because of the current system," said Watts, a former college football star who switched parties recently. "What we're saying is, we need to have a healthy dialogue so that we don't create another 16 million children who will be impoverished. . . . What we are saying is that the current system hasn't worked over the last 35 to 40 years."
Public officials like Watts and political organizers like Richardson are counting on blacks to sympathize with the view that social welfare policies generated and sustained largely by Democrats have made victims of the minorities they sought to help.
"Who really benefits from the welfare system?" Watts asked. "It's not the welfare recipient; it's those who administer . . . and coordinate and operate those programs rather than the recipients whom they are intended to benefit."
Conservatives also are counting on what they consider the black community's natural inclination toward conservatism. Richardson, for instance, on Thursday cited a 1992 poll conducted by the liberal Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in which 33% of African Americans identified themselves as conservatives.
"African Americans have always been seen as fertile ground for conservatives," Richardson said. "But they (conservatives) still need to do some serious work in the African American community because they are seen as bigoted and anti-black."