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Black Clergy Courted by GOP

Politics: Conservatives hope to make headway among traditionally Democratic African Americans. Many seem willing to listen, but some remain skeptical.

March 24, 2002|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seldom have black ministers been more popular. Historically wooed by liberal politicians as conduits to African American communities, they are now the darlings of conservatives as well.

In the last year, conservative groups have flown a delegation of ministers, including a dozen from Los Angeles, to Washington to chat about racial profiling with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and hobnob with conservative scholars at the Heritage Foundation.

California Republican lawmakers have flown ministers of primarily black mega-churches and community chapels, storefronts and sanctuaries to Sacramento for ''Pastors Days'' and hosted hundreds of them at conservative community-renewal conferences.

A handful of Republican legislators trawl the length of the state, stopping in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego, where they preach conservative remedies to poverty, unemployment and the spread of AIDS. African American pastors turn out by the hundreds to hear them.

''Not bad, when white Republicans can come to Los Angeles, host a meeting for 400 black pastors, and some Latinos too, without anyone really knowing about it,'' boasts state Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City). ''In fact, just weeks ago I spent the night there--in the 'hood" as the guest of one minister's family.

Many African American ministers, whose congregants voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2000 presidential election, say they are not yet converted--but make it clear they are listening.

''Of course I know the Republican Party has an objective and an agenda--it's trying to win favor with the black community through the pastors,'' said Bishop Frank Stewart of Zoe Christian Center in Los Angeles. ''But I don't think that's negative.... They're saying some things that are interesting to me.''

There is deep desperation on both sides of this would-be relationship.

Stark demographic changes make it clear that if the state Republican Party does not diversify, it will go the way of the dinosaur. Latinos in California supported Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by a 2-to-1 margin. Nationally, 90% of blacks and a majority of Latinos and Asians voted for Gore, while white men voted 62% in favor of Bush and white women were split almost evenly.

Courting minorities "is our No. 1 priority,'' said Pamela Mantis, deputy director of outreach for the Republican National Committee.

So the GOP goes on the road. Last year, the RNC held African American outreaches in Memphis, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Arkansas, and earlier this month hosted blacks and Latinos in Mississippi. In mid-April, the party will hold an event targeting Haitian Americans in Miami.

''The African American community has felt abandoned by our party for the last 40 or 50 years," Mantis said, "and the other side, the Democrats, took advantage of that.''

The desperation on the black ministers' side is the belief by some that they are taken for granted by the Democrats, and that liberal solutions to urban problems have done little to improve their communities.

Some are drawn to conservative notions like the privatization of Social Security, President Bush's initiative to give faith-based organizations greater access to federal funding, school vouchers and opposition to abortion.

''My vote is now definitely up for grabs,'' said the Rev. James Price of Long Beach Christian Center. Republicans ''have definitely said things that make me listen.''

He said he decided he favored privatizing part of Social Security, which would allow individuals to make their own investment choices, during the pastors' trip to the Heritage Foundation.

''My desire is to bring biblical truths to my congregation and we're supposed to be good stewards of things that we have,'' he said. ''Timothy says, in Chapter 5.8, that he who does not provide for his own and those of his household is worse than an infidel and has denied the faith.''

Last month, African American pastors from around the country gathered at a hotel near Los Angeles International Airport for the conservative Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education's annual convention.

The coalition is a nonprofit organization founded by black welfare mother-turned-conservative author Star Parker, best known for her book ''Pimps, Whores and Welfare Brats." It paints liberal Democrats as pimps who buy off black leaders in exchange for their support of a welfare culture. Published in 1997 with a forward by Rush Limbaugh, the book rocketed her to national prominence in conservative circles.

Parker, who now lives in San Clemente, says she enjoys the Republican Party's praise but questions its support. ''Republicans, as a party, are unwilling to acknowledge social problems regarding race,'' Parker said. ''When I do [conservative] radio shows, racial profiling will come up, they'll ask me: 'Well, racial profiling isn't a big problem, is it?' And when I say 'Well, actually it is ... ' there's silence.''

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