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Blacks and the GOP: long-term marriage?

Willie Richardson publishes a magazine called National Minority Politics, and like most black voters in America he is a registered Democrat. But Richardson hasn't had much occasion to vote for black candidates during the last 15 years _ because he hasn't voted for a Democrat in 15 years.

"Liberal policies are killing the black community" by sapping individual initiative and personal responsibility, said Richardson. Republican principles are "better for blacks right now."

For the Willie Richardsons of the world, 1994 is a big year. There are 25 black Republican candidates for the U.S. House _ the most in American history, almost double the 15 who ran in 1992.

For black conservatives and the Republican Party, however, the good news falls off a bit from there _ fewer than a handful of those House candidates are expected to win. Most are sacrificial lambs, running in districts against entrenched incumbents whom no one else wanted to challenge.

Those with some chance of winning tend to be running in predominantly white districts. If whites actually vote the way they suggest to pollsters, it will help ease strong suspicions that many won't vote for black candidates under almost any circumstances. Those suspicions persist despite the 1990 election of conservative Republican Gary Franks, who is the only black Republican in the House.

What it won't do, observers say, is confirm Republican claims that they are making inroads among black voters.

"I see it as an encouraging sign, but I would be more impressed if more of those (strong GOP) black candidates were running in black districts," said Washington political analyst Sonia Jarvis. "That would indicate that their policies are attractive across racial lines."

Eleven of the 25 candidates are facing white opponents, 14 are facing black Democrats.

If one or two black Republicans do join Franks on the liberal, virtually all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus, the results could be intriguing, Jarvis said. Franks, whose Connecticut district is 90-percent white, has often been at odds with the Caucus, voting against such measures as family leave legislation, a waiting period for handgun purchases and a crime bill provision that would have let death-row inmates use racial statistics to challenge their sentences.

Those given even a remote shot at becoming the second black Republican in the House include Susan Johnson in Connecticut and A. Jo Baylor in Texas. (The only Florida race that includes a black Republican is in Jacksonville, where talk radio host Marc Little is challenging first-term incumbent Democrat Corrine Brown. Brown is a strong favorite to win re-election.)

The black GOP candidate with the best chance, though, is J. C. Watts of Oklahoma's 4th District. Watts, a former University of Oklahoma quarterback who was the first black elected to statewide office in overwhelmingly white Oklahoma, is running as a staunch anti-government, anti-welfare, anti-Clinton conservative.

"I am a believer that over the last 40 years government has been more of a hindrance than a help to the minority community," Watts told the New York Times. "I just believe I or you can do a much better job dealing with the affairs of our households than can the federal or state governments."

Though sentiment favoring self-help is growing among blacks, many who recall the role of government in breaking Jim Crow find such remarks too glib and self-serving. They write it off to the fact that black conservatives such as Watts need white votes to win.

And that means that, like all politicians, they will respond to those who voted for them, said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

"They're coming to Washington to represent white political interests and not black political interests," said Bositis.

But Republican leaders say that, given a national stage in Washington, the 36-year-old Watts has the charisma to appeal to all voters, including younger blacks who are increasingly disenchanted with the Democrat party.

"He has become one of the most popular and sought-after speakers for our party nationally. His election would make him even a stronger spokesman for the Republican Party nationally. He will be in constant demand," Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour told Scripps Howard News Service.

The distinction between black and white interests unsettles many Americans of both races who profess to long for racially neutral politics. "I would prefer to see a white conservative elected" rather than a black liberal, Richardson said. "I'm totally beyond the race concept."

He's a longtime friend and supporter of Jerry Burley, a Texas congressional candidate who shares Richardson's family-values philosophy but is generally considered far behind in his 18th District, Houston-area race against black Democrat Sheila Lee.

Getting blacks like Burley into the GOP ranks will help chase racists out, just as happened with the Democrats, argues Richardson, whose Houston-based magazine recently sponsored a national convention of black conservatives that drew 700 delegates and several GOP heavy-hitters like Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

"It's not white Republicans who will change the Republican Party, it's black conservatives," Richardson said. "Once we get in there, they're gonna have to deal with us."

But black Republicans face an uphill battle in trying to overcome a long track record of GOP candidates who have profited by pursuing the white backlash vote. They seem unlikely to convert many blacks by harping against the same things as many white Republican counterparts _ affirmative action, crime, welfare.

It's true that the season of political unrest has not bypassed blacks, says Jarvis, who heads a project on race, politics and media at George Washington University. But they're generally not anxious about the same things as whites.

"The top issue for blacks is jobs and economic development," she said. Black unemployment remains 60-percent higher than white, despite the lowest overall unemployment level in a decade. But conservatives seem to offer blacks little help. So long as that's the case, she expects blacks to continue to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.

Fielding more candidates does show some stirrings of Republican movement toward diversity, Jarvis said, "but there is no real outreach in terms of position and rhetoric.

"In fact, the definition of a good Republican, at least in the South, is someone who consistently votes against the programs and policies of the Congressional Black Caucus."

It remains to be seen whether the party of George Bush's Willie Horton and Jesse Helms' "white hands" campaign ads will ever be a home for black voters. While Republicans may be fielding more candidates than ever, the Democrats remain the only modern party that is actually putting black faces in Congress.