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Republicans wisely reach out to the black community

New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, is famous now for jumping party lines to endorse New York's embattled Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo. But he's coming here Tuesday on an equally unconventional political mission. The mayor will be in Boston to help the son of a New York City police officer be elected as the first black Republican ever to win the position of Suffolk County district attorney.

The exceptional high-level help that Ralph C. Martin, II, is receiving is part of a pattern of Republican outreach into African-American politics that has drawn little notice but may produce some significant and even startling results on Election Day.

At the same time that the 1994 returns are likely to show the GOP consolidating its grip on the once-solidly Democratic South, Republicans are trying to give their party some badly needed racial diversity by recruiting viable African-American and Latino candidates at all levels.

Martin, 41, was a registered Democrat until six months before Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, appointed him to the vacant position of Suffolk County DA, the top law-enforcement job in Boston and its close-in suburbs. Weld had recruited Martin as an assistant prosecutor when Weld was the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and passed over several more established Republican aspirants to select Martin for the DA job. "He wanted a more diverse party," Martin told me after debating his opponent the other evening, "but he also wanted someone who could win. He thought I could form coalitions that a white Republican from Back Bay couldn't."

Martin's victory over Democrat Gerard F. Malone is no sure thing. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 6-1 margin and Malone has the backing of sometimes influential police unions. No Republican has won the DA job in at least 70 years. But Martin has attracted exceptional Democratic and business community support. Weld came close to carrying the county in 1990 and he has provided financial support and aid to Martin in recruiting people like Giuliani to come in and help.

Helping elect a black Republican prosecutor would obviously be a feather in Weld's cap and it would also provide Massachusetts Republicans with a potential candidate for higher office. Weld is far from alone in taking this route. In Ohio, when the Democratic incumbent resigned to accept an appointment from President Clinton, Republican Gov. George Voinovich appointed Ken Blackwell, a black Republican politician from Cincinnati, as state treasurer _ another break in precedent. Blackwell is the favorite for election in a likely Voinovich landslide, and other blacks are given chances of breaking through for the GOP in statewide races in Colorado and Texas, among other places.

The GOP also aims to expand its tiny beachhead in Congress. Early on, Rep. Gary Franks of Connecticut, the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus, was regarded as one of most vulnerable GOP incumbents. But with all kinds of help pouring into his Waterbury district, he now rates at least an even-money bet to survive.

Republicans claim the favorite's role for J. C. Watts, a former college football star and elected state corporation commissioner, in an open House race in Oklahoma. Elsewhere around the country, 15 other districts have black Republican candidates _ five of them challenging white Democrats and one or two given a fair chance of winning.

Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour has taken a personal interest in the recruitment of minority candidates, starting with his home district in Mississippi, where Bill Jordan of Yazoo City is running for Congress. In many cases, Barbour has steered money and campaign assistance to races he knows are unlikely to produce victories this year, on the grounds that "win, lose or draw, they are very important to our party. Our potential support in the black community is much greater than people realize, let alone what we've been getting. There is a conservative core in that community, and the young people are much more independent of the Democratic Party than their parents were."

White Republicans are also testing possible support in African-American neighborhoods, sometimes helped by the small but growing cadre of black GOP party officials. In north Omaha, for example, Jon Christensen, the conservative Republican congressional challenger, has spent days door-knocking with Glenn Freeman, the black Douglas County Republican chairman, and has found enough support to open a satellite headquarters in a part of the district traditionally left to the Democrats.

What is important is not just what the Republicans do in black neighborhoods but what they learn there. Over the years, too many of their assumptions have been uninformed by any kind of dialogue or experience with African-American communities. "As a matter of governance," Barbour said, "it is very important to have two salt-and-pepper parties in this country, not just one." The stronger the Republicans become, the more vital that message.

Washington Post Writers Group