WASHINGTON — Looking to further expand their party's political advantage, Republican officials will announce today a committee of African American leaders and experts on minority voting to develop a strategy to attract more blacks to the GOP.
The group includes well-known black conservatives, such as former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), and activists drawn to the party in recent years by the Bush administration's outreach to African American ministers and business people.
"This is a very serious priority for this party today," said Kenneth Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In recent days, Mehlman attended a series of town hall meetings in black communities and appeared on a television show hosted by black commentator Tavis Smiley.
"Is this going to be a long and sustained effort? Absolutely," Mehlman said.
"Will it be dramatic and happen overnight? I don't think it will."
The GOP remains behind the Democrats in attracting black voters: President Bush won 11% of the black vote in the 2004 presidential election. But, Republican strategists said, he got 16% of the black vote in Ohio, which helped secure his victory in that state.
Bush had drawn 9% of the African American vote, both in Ohio and nationwide, in 2000.
Party officials contended the increase was the result of targeted outreach to socially conservative black ministers who, like the president, oppose same-sex marriage and support school vouchers.
The GOP effort comes as a separate group of African American religious and business leaders is preparing to announce a "21st Century Mayflower Compact" designed to build Republican ties to blacks using issues such as Social Security and same-sex marriage.
"There are a lot of conservative African Americans in this country," said Vivian Berryhill, a GOP activist in Mississippi and president of the National Coalition of Pastors' Spouses, who was named to the strategy committee.
To counter the Republican push, the Congressional Black Caucus recently launched its own outreach effort, focusing on black ministers.
The new GOP board includes former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie; Bishop Keith Butler, pastor of the World of Faith International Christian Center in Detroit and a likely U.S. Senate candidate; Alphonso Jackson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development; National Black Chamber of Commerce President Harry Alford; and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele.