HOUSTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a pitch for black votes Wednesday, telling the NAACP convention that his economic and education agendas would do more to help put people to work than those of his rival, President Barack Obama.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” Romney said.
The overwhelmingly Democratic group roundly booed him, however, when he declared that he’d repeal the health care law.
“I’m going to eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find; that includes Obamacare,” Romney said to a long chorus of jeers. A woman in the back of the hall shouted, “You mean Romneycare?”
Undaunted, Romney added, “If our priority is jobs – and that’s my priority – that’s something I’d change, and I’d replace it with something that provides the people something they need in health care, which is lower cost, good quality and the capacity to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions. . . . I’ll put that in place.”
Some in the audience gave the former Massachusetts governor points for coming to speak to them; others said he’d used them as a prop.
“He was brave to come here and speak,” said Geraldine Alexis, a 51-year-old public school counselor from Sierra Vista, Ariz. “I thought he would try to appease us. He didn’t. He insulted us, with some of the things he said.”
Some NAACP officials worried about the group booing a guest speaker.
Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta, an African-American, said it was appropriate, however. Reed said Romney was looking for a “Sister Souljah moment,” referring to then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s criticism of racially tinged comments by the rapper during the 1992 presidential campaign, a sign that he could stand up to his political base.
“It makes him look like he’s having character and integrity when he really wasn’t speaking to the NAACP audience at all,” Reed said. “He’s aware what’s going on in Congress today, and those are the individuals he was speaking to.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted Wednesday to repeal the health care law, a symbolic move that faces certain death in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Romney sprinkled his speech with quotes from abolitionist Frederick Douglass and revered former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks and invoked his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, who was a forceful civil rights advocate. He even lauded Obama’s ascension to the White House.
“If someone had told us in the 1950s or 1960s that a black citizen would serve as the 44th president, we would have been proud and many would have been surprised,” he said. “Picturing that day, we might have assumed that the American presidency would be the very last door of opportunity opened. Before that came to pass, every other barrier on the path to equal opportunity would surely have come down.”
He added that if America were a truly equal society today, African-Americans wouldn’t be affected disproportionally by the country’s economic woes.
“Instead, it’s worse for African-Americans in almost every way,” he said, noting that while the national unemployment rate remained at 8.2 percent in June, the African-American jobless rate grew from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income and median family income are all worse in the black community.”
Romney, like Obama, didn’t offer any targeted remedy for the problems. He said the key to economic equality for African-Americans lay in improving the education system. He accused the president of being duplicitous for advocating better schools while being politically cozy with teachers unions “that are blocking reform.”
“You can be a voice of disadvantaged public school students or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers union, but you can’t be both,” Romney said.
He then laid out an education agenda that includes expanding parental choice by linking federal education funds to students so that parents could send their children to any public or charter school. He also would revamp the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind act by reducing the federal government’s management role while ensuring that schools are held responsible for results.
Romney’s education pitch did little to sway the NAACP audience. Julian Bond, an NAACP chairman emeritus, said Romney’s remarks were aimed more at white voters than an African-American audience.
“To make them feel better about him and to feel that he is a better person,” Bond said. “He’s saying, ‘Look here, I met with the Negroes. I talked to them. I argued my positions. I don’t think they took them, but at least I showed up.’ ”
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said Romney didn’t change any minds but “he opened minds to ask harder questions.”
“He recognized many of the challenges of our community,” he said. “The real concern is what are the solutions. We don’t elect people just because they understand we have a problem. We’re looking for your recommendations, your solutions for those problems, solutions that recognize those disparities.”
Lightman reported from Washington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; Twitter: @wdouglas, @LightmanDavid