WASHINGTON — It's a lonely world out there, black conservatives said Monday, especially as they try to recruit more African-American voters to their ranks.
Many black voters will quietly tell conservative African-American politicians that they support their social agenda, said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., one of just two black Republicans in Congress and the organizer of Monday's panel discussion on black conservatism.
But they don't end up voting with the Republican Party, said West, who invited about a dozen black conservatives to speak on his panel. Here's how J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, put it for West: "Most black people don't think alike; most black people just vote alike."
The audience was small — about 50 — and many of those who attended were congressional aides. The event was broadcast on C-SPAN, however, and West urged people to use Twitter, Facebook and their email contacts to send links to the video to help "break down the perception" that all black Americans support the Democratic Party.
"We can't have this fear of standing up and saying who we are," West said. "We shout at football games, we shout at church, we need to start shouting about the principles that make us who we are."
They face an uphill battle, many of those on the panel acknowledged. They need conservative black leaders who will go into what Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County, Wis., called "the gallows of our urban centers" to connect with people on an emotional level. Those conservative black leaders need to be on par with liberals such as Jesse Jackson, Clarke said.
"The left has a counterstrategy for what we're trying to do here," said Clarke, who described himself as "a man alone."
"We need a face," he said. "We need a face on this movement."
They must also get the Republican Party to pay attention to issues that are important to black voters, Watts said.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Republican presidential primary, where black voters have had little say in who will be the GOP nominee. Iowa and New Hampshire have small black populations. In South Carolina, a state where nearly one-third of the 4.6 million people are African-American, just 1 percent of the voters who cast ballots in Saturday's GOP primary are black, according to exit polling conducted by Edison Research and published in The New York Times.
But no one from the Republican National Committee attended Monday's event, the panelists pointed out.
"This is the discussion that the institutions of the Republican Party need to be involved with," Watts said. "How many people do we have at the strategic table at any of the presidential campaigns? Perception is reality. If my clients feel like I don't care about their needs, they're going to go somewhere else."
Black Americans — whether they are Democrats or Republicans — do have lots in common, though, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the lone liberal voice on the panel. A pastor himself, Cleaver noted that "the black church is the most conservative institution in the black community."
Cleaver said that he has declined requests to campaign against West, who has his own sizable campaign war chest but who also will face two well-funded Democratic opponents in his South Florida district.
"It is absolutely crazy for us to get in here and try to figure out ways that we can be mad at each other," Cleaver said. "Because I have some differences with him on political matters? I'd rather work with him to make sure we cover all our bases. We ought to have Republicans who are black."
But Cleaver told the crowd that he also wouldn't budge on some social issues. When asked by a women in the audience whether he would vote to slash the budget of Planned Parenthood, Cleaver said no. He told the woman that federal money to pay for abortions doesn't go to Planned Parenthood, the reproductive health care service that's been a target of anti-abortion activists. It provides critical health care to poor people, Cleaver said, and he'll continue to support budgeting federal money for those services.
West said he and others would continue to take their message of black conservatism to as wide of an audience as he could muster.
"You've got to come up with your own individual action plan," he told the audience, saying that on Capitol Hill, he and the others on the panel "will continue to be voices that need to be heard."
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