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GOP leaders meet with black conservatives

Some civil rights activists skeptical

From Jonathan Karl
CNN Washington Bureau

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said the time is right for
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said the time is right for "positive change in race relations."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top Republican leaders met with a small group of black conservatives Monday in an effort to undo some of the damage inflicted by comments made last month by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

"The Republican Party has to realize that it cannot be lily white any longer," said conservative columnist Armstrong Williams. "And it doesn't mean, being lily white, that they are racist. But change must come about, and it must start within our house."

By wide margins, black voters tend to support Democratic candidates, a voting pattern evident for decades. A 2002 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington found that while more African American voters call themselves independents or Republicans, 63 percent still consider themselves Democrats and vote "Democratic at their usual high levels."

Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the party wants to "completely remove presumptions or appearances or traditions that somehow steal away the opportunity for us to feel fully engaged" with black voters.

"We believe the issues important to African-Americans are the same issues important to every other Americans," Racicot said. "Education is clearly an important issue. Health care is clearly an important issue, and we want to get into the neighborhoods and communities and make certain that we're bridging every gap where we've been challenged before."

The issue came to the forefront after comments at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party in December, when Lott said his home state of Mississippi was "proud" to have backed Thurmond's segregationist presidential bid -- "and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

President Bush -- who had talked often of broadening the GOP's appeal to minorities -- denounced Lott's comments. The Mississippi Republican was forced to give up his leadership post in the uproar that followed. Monday, Racicot said Republicans want to do more to draw blacks into the GOP fold.

"When you talk about the practical things that we're going to do, we're talking about everything from staffing patterns inside this committee, inside local committees across the country, to recruiting candidates that want to become involved," he said.

Sen. Bill Frist, who replaced Lott as majority leader, said there is a "tremendous opportunity" for "positive change in race relations" and said he hoped the dialogue would continue.

But some civil rights leaders were not impressed with the pronouncements.

"All the meetings in the world will not replace the agenda of the party and the substance that they pursue," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.

Others noted that with the retirement of Oklahoma's J.C. Watts from the House, there is not a single black Republican in Congress. That's in contrast to the Bush administration where the president has appointed several African Americans -- including Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- to powerful posts.

Williams, a former Thurmond aide, said he doesn't want to change GOP ideology. Instead, he wants to get more blacks -- especially black candidates -- to support it.

"We have real work to do, and that work started today," Williams said. "When we finish this journey, there will be a true democracy in this country for black Americans. They will have an option not to just vote for that Democratic Party; they will have a party that wants them in the party."

Racicot said the GOP would do a better job with "staffing patterns" inside the party committee as well as recruiting more minority candidates.

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