HOUSTON — Mitt Romney’s speech before the nation’s oldest civil rights organization was framed by his campaign as an olive branch to the black community and a promise to be a president for all people. But his sharp criticisms of President Obama and his vow to repeal Obama’s healthcare plan drew sustained boos — and some in the audience left more energized to work against his campaign.
Romney, whose late father was a forceful advocate for civil rights as governor of Michigan, has campaigned before predominantly white audiences for much of the last year, but he received a standing ovation when he arrived to speak to the annual convention of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston, where many members praised him for having the courage to show up even though 95% of black voters supported Obama four years ago.
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The NAACP's reception, at first, was polite and appreciative as Romney argued that he would champion school reform to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, and that his economic policies would help lift Americans from poverty and aid middle-class Americans “of all races.”
There were nods of approval when he noted that few had expected 50 years ago that a black man would become the nation’s 44th president and asserted that despite the civil rights movement of that era “many barriers remain” and “old inequities persist.”
But murmurs of disagreement ran through the crowd when Romney declared that his policies would help “families of any color more than the policies and leadership of President Obama.” And he was met with loud boos when he said he would reduce spending in part by eliminating “expensive, non-essential programs” such as those established by the Obama healthcare overhaul. For 15 seconds, Romney stood quietly, smiling at the audience as they voiced their disapproval.
The former Massachusetts governor appeared to have lost the crowd when he said the president had failed in his promises to create jobs and “better educate tomorrow’s workers.”
“I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you are looking at him,” Romney said to boos. He paused and nodded firmly before carrying on with his speech: “Take a look.”
Romney’s audience, in many respects, was not the audience that sat restlessly before him in the Houston convention center, but rather the independent swing voters in the electorate at large who are looking for signs that he will be a welcoming and inclusive leader.
His forceful language about the president’s performance and policies, although bold, surprised some members of the audience. Some attendees gave him kudos for not softening his message, but said they had expected a more statesmanlike and less partisan speech.
Tara Wall, who is handling outreach to African Americans for the campaign, noted that there was “a lot more applause than there were boos.”
“They thanked us for showing up; they appreciate us for showing up. I will take that along with the applause over three [rounds of] boos,” she said.