Tide of minority voters runs against GOP

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Lugenia Gordon still remembers the day she became a Republican. It was in 1934. She and her father were downtown in Selma, Ala., when a truck drove by with a large billboard:

''Vote for White Supremacy! Vote Democratic!'' the sign proclaimed.

Mrs. Gordon was only 13 years old at the time, but she has been an angry Republican ever since. Mrs. Gordon, you see, is black. And she has not forgotten that it was Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party that freed the slaves and fought for generations in support of black rights.

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Democrats, especially Southern Democrats, were hard at work during those years passing Jim Crow laws and keeping blacks out of the voting booth and at the back of the bus. Northern Democrats, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn't do much about it, Mrs. Gordon recalls.

There aren't many people left like Mrs. Gordon, even though most blacks at one time used to vote Republican. Today she is a minority within a minority. America is about 12 percent black, and only one-tenth of the country's black voters usually pull the GOP lever on election day.

Yet if the Grand Old Party of Lincoln is ever to grow, if it is ever to shed its status as the junior partner in American politics, it must widen its appeal. And one way to do that is to reach out to blacks, Hispanics, and other fast-growing minorities.

This isn't a new idea. Former GOP chairman Bill Brock of Tennessee used to preach it all the time. He often went before black groups to debate his Democratic foes over which party had done more for blacks. Today, there are specialists in black affairs at both the GOP headquarters and the White House.

Yet most blacks and a majority of Hispanics remain wedded to the Democrats. And Ronald Reagan has done little to change that. Even some black Republicans have been disappointed that Reagan has done so little for them. For instance, they point out that this President has appointed no black judges to the US district courts and to date only one-fourth as many black judges to the US Court of Appeals as President Carter.

For Republicans, the situation isn't desperate - at least, not yet. But black voters are expected to turn out in record numbers in 1984. Many have been hurt by the recent deep recession. They have also been fired up by the winning races of black candidates for mayor in Chicago and Philadelphia. And many are thrilled with the campaign of Democrat Jesse Jackson for the party's presidential nomination.

At the same time, the number of Hispanic voters is rising faster than any other major ethnic group. With the exception of Cuban-Americans, Hispanic voters usually vote Democratic. And they are becoming powerful factors in Sunbelt states that the Republicans need, including California, Texas, and Florida.

Failure to tap this growing tide of new voters could nip President Reagan's reelection hopes. Even more important, it could put Republicans at the back of the political bus for the rest of this decade.

If one looks for solutions to all of this, it quickly becomes apparent that there are no easy answers.

Longtime Republican stalwarts such as party chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., former chairman Brock, and campaign strategist John P. Sears don't see quick solutions. Nor do leading black Republicans like LeGree Daniels, who chairs the National Black Republican Council, or Hispanic Republicans like Rita di Martino, who chairs the New York State chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

Mr. Sears, for instance, suggests that enlarging the pool of black Republicans is a 10-year task - something well beyond the immediate interest of party leaders more concerned about holding onto the White House next November.

Others, such as Frederic R. Kellogg, president of the Ripon Society, say that bringing blacks into the party requires basic reforms, such as changing party rules to make it easier for blacks to become convention delegates.

How did the party of Lincoln get itself into this deep hole? A little history may be helpful here.

Until the presidency of Herbert Hoover, blacks who voted (mostly in the North) were as loyal to the Republicans as they were to the American flag. Pictures of Abe Lincoln hung in their homes, and the Democratic Party (the party of white Southerners) was viewed with suspicion.

The Great Depression began to change all that. In 1932, when FDR ran, many blacks for the first time put an ''X'' after a Democrat's name on the ballot, even though Hoover still carried some black wards in big Northern cities that year. By the end of the '30s, the terrible experience of the depression, combined with the work and welfare benefits of Roosevelt's New Deal, had put half the nation's blacks into the Democratic Party.

Even so, many blacks - especially middle-class blacks - remained Republican. One reason, as detailed in Nancy J. Weiss's new book, ''Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR'' (Princeton University Press), was that the New Deal really did little for civil rights. FDR, who was more concerned with economic than social issues, was unwilling to break with tradition and battle party factions that had their roots in prejudice.

It took Harry Truman to do that. In 1948 he helped spark the Southern ''Dixiecrat'' walkout from the Democratic convention by supporting a tough civil rights plank. That was followed in the 1960s by Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights crusade, after which the black switch to the Democrats was essentially complete.

What can the Republicans do now?

Republicans suggest a number of possibilities. Among them:

Make it really pay off to be a black (or Hispanic) Republican. Many black leaders haven't forgotten that when the last Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) got into the White House, he quickly seemed to forget his black supporters. Some black members of Congress couldn't even get in to see Mr. Carter for months. Republicans could show that blacks and Hispanics who work for the GOP get rewarded in substantive ways. (A top Republican close to President Reagan frets that after Reagan was elected, he invited a large gathering of Hispanics to the White House, with little regard as to whether they had worked for him or not. ''I would guess two-thirds of them had worked for Carter. That's no way to build a party,'' he says.)

Emphasize issues of great importance to minorities. One possibility: a strong policy on urban affairs. After carefully crafting such a policy, push it very hard. Give it high visibility. Have the President and other leaders speak out on the issue frequently. Let minority voters know that Republicans are deeply concerned about the issues that worry them and use political muscle to get key minority programs through Congress.

Recognize the strengths of minorities. Most minority voters want jobs, not welfare. Offer policies that support independence, not dependence; that support the family, not breakup of the family; that foster morality, not a breakdown of morals. These are traditional Republican positions, and many minority voters will be naturally attracted to them if they are presented well. Appeal to the pride of blacks and Hispanics.

Keep the economy and foreign policy on track. These are the main issues to most voters, and they are vitally important to minority voters as well. If the economy is growing, if jobs are being created, if business is thriving, if inflation is under control, if the nation is at peace, all of that will play well in minority neighborhoods, just as it will anywhere else.

Yet, with all of this, the GOP is not guaranteed success.

''It's a two-way street,'' chairman Fahrenkopf muses, meaning that the party can open its arms to blacks, but blacks must then give Republicans a chance to prove themselves.

Mrs. Daniels says that if blacks will take a closer look at the Republican Party, they will see much to like. Republicans ''foster economic independence,'' while Democrats foster dependence on government handouts, she argues. Democrats encourage blacks to say ''gimme, gimme, gimme.'' The Democratic approach ''is the politics of the '60s, not the politics of the '80s,'' and that's the message the GOP must get across in the black community, she says.

Mrs. di Martino, who has a Puerto Rican background, says the GOP also has a big educational job in the Hispanic community. The party needs to let people know what it stands for: conservative values, family unity, deep faith in religion, private enterprise. These qualities have appeal among Hispanics. What is needed is to spread the word so that more Hispanics understand this, she says.

Giving an urgent quality to all of this are efforts to raise voter registration sharply in coming months among blacks and Hispanics. The Jesse Jackson campaign is expected to boost the number of black (mostly Democratic) voters by at least several hundred thousand. Among Hispanics, a drive is under way to register 1 million new voters, with special efforts in low-income areas.

''All this should be of grave concern to the Republican Party,'' says Mrs. di Martino.

Next: Republican strengths and weaknesses in 1984.

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