BOSTON — ``MASSACHUSETTS Republican'' is nearly an oxymoron in a state where only 13 percent of registered voters are signed on with the GOP. And being a black Republican in the Bay State seems even more anomalous: African Americans have long been a solid Democratic constituency throughout the United States.
Yet Massachusetts is home to a small but dedicated band of black GOP activists whose commitment to Republican principles shows why the party is making gradual but discernible inroads in the African American community - and why it might behoove the national and state Republican committees to intensify their outreach efforts to that community.
The group is the Massachusetts chapter of the National Black Republican Council (NBRC), headquartered in New York City. In terms of energy, the Bay State chapter - though it has only about 50 dues-paying members - appears to be in the vanguard among NBRC affiliates.
Policy spelled out
Last September the chapter sponsored a ``Black Republican Agenda Conference'' in Boston, attended by about 250 people. The participants laid out policy recommendations on crime and violence, education, health care, economic development, and attracting black voters.
According to Michael Murphy, then the chapter president, the Boston conference was the model for three more meetings of grass-roots black Republicans sponsored by the Republican National Committee (RNC). Black-agenda conferences were held in Chicago in March and in Atlanta last month, and a Washington meeting is scheduled for June 24-25.
At the state GOP convention in May, the Massachusetts black Republicans sponsored an ``inclusion resolution'' that the delegates passed unanimously and forwarded to the RNC. The resolution urges the Republican Party to revise its delegate-apportionment rules for national conventions. GOP delegations are apportioned in favor of less-populous states, at the expense of the states where most black and other minority Republicans live, says Arthur George, a lawyer who drafted the resolution. (An RNC spokeswoman says only that the resolution ``will receive attention'' at the national level.)
GOP Gov. William Weld's election in 1990 demonstrated that Republican messages can fall on receptive ears in the Massachusetts black community. More than 40 percent of black voters voted for Mr. Weld then. In turn, Weld has appointed blacks to several high administration posts.
Black Republican activists like Mr. Murphy and Marilyn Rollins, currently the chair of the NBRC's Massachusetts chapter, say it's not surprising that GOP themes appeal to a growing number of African Americans.
Answers for cities
``The Republican philosophy - government closer to the people, self-reliance, economic empowerment - has answers to many urban problems,'' says Murphy, a former Dunkin Donuts executive who is running for Congress this year. ``Black communities need jobs, and business creates more jobs than government does. We're the party of business and enterprise.''
Ms. Rollins, a Republican state committeewoman and a member of the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission, says she, too, responds to the GOP themes of ``self-determination, entrepreneurship, opportunity.'' ``Democratic programs just make people dependent,'' she says.
Both Murphy and Rollins acknowledge, however, that their Republican ties cause dismay among many African Americans. Blacks' receptivity to the party is still ``marginal,'' Murphy says.
``Among many African Americans, there is clearly the perception that Republicans are not interested in their issues,'' he adds.
Does reality differ from that perception? Murphy chooses his words carefully: ``I steer clear of the word `racism,' but minorities have experienced `benign neglect' from many white Republicans. While the party talks about opening up, we're still waiting for more proof that it's serious.''
The Republican Party ``needs to do a lot better at outreach,'' Rollins agrees. ``It needs to address the black community's issues and take strong stands.''
Both of these black Republicans see their state as a hopeful trailblazer, however. On raising black participation in the party, ``the RNC sees Massachusetts taking a leadership role. We're the model,'' Rollins says.