TWENTY-FOUR blacks, an all-time high, now sit in Congress, but not one is a Republican. GOP leaders predict that will begin to change today here in Louisville. Al Brown, a witty, urbane black businessman, is running for the Republican nomination to Congress in Kentucky's Third District. GOP officials, from national chairman Lee Atwater on down, make no secret that they want Mr. Brown to triumph over his white Republican opponent, Timothy Hardy.
Their goal: Make Brown the first black Republican member of either body of Congress since Edward Brooke of Massachusetts left the Senate in 1978.
In Brown, GOP chiefs have chosen a quick-minded candidate to be their point man. Brown is an accomplished stump speaker, deftly deflecting liberals' attacks, stoutly defending his Republican ties, and meeting criticisms head-on from fellow blacks who charge that he might forget them once he reaches Washington.
``The day you see me turn white, then that might be a legitimate question,'' he tells one critic at a political meeting.
Candidates like Brown are central to Republican plans for the future. The GOP is striving to reach majority party status in this decade.
Republican officials know that will not happen without greater black support. So they are encouraging black Republicans to run for everything from governor to municipal judge. Sometimes, national party leaders are even tilting against white opponents when they can recruit a promising contender like Brown.
In Louisville, that means the Republican National Committee has offered Brown all kinds of support, from fund raising to campaign strategy, while giving his white opponent the brushoff.
``Clearly Brown's the best candidate, and I don't feel we'd do anything for [Mr. Hardy] even if he asked,'' says Mary Matalin, the RNC chief of staff. ``There's no need to be neutral when there is clearly a superior candidate.''
If he wins the GOP nomination here, Brown still faces an uphill campaign against the Democratic nominee. The seat currently is held by 10-term veteran Romano Mazzoli, who is getting a stiff intraparty challenge today from Jeffrey Hutter, a health-care executive.
With Brown as their nominee, Republicans would have an opportunity to undercut traditional black support for Mr. Mazzoli, and pull an upset.
In the longer term, Republicans realize that the trend in American politics is toward much greater representation for blacks at all levels of government. With minority populations climbing sharply in key states like Florida, California, and Texas, Republicans must find a way to capitalize on this changing racial and ethnic climate.
In Atlanta, Ed Brown, executive director of the Voter Education Project, notes that blacks have come a long way since the mid-'60s, when the Voting Rights Act was adopted. In 1965, fewer than 100 blacks held elective office in the 11 states of the former Confederacy.
Today, there are more than 4,000 elected black officials in the Old South, and 7,370 nationwide, according to the latest report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Those figures have increased every year since the center began compiling them in 1970.
During the 1980s, the number of elected black officials rose by an average of 4.6 percent a year. The number of elected black women grew faster - 8.2 percent a year.
But Republicans are not getting their share of this newfound black political power. And lack of broad-based black support is already crimping GOP efforts to expand its hold on local and state governments, and to break the Democrats' 36-year hammerlock on the House.
To change that, Mr. Atwater has launched an outreach program aimed at blacks, as well as Hispanics and Asians.
The GOP is already claiming some small successes. Victories for black Republicans in 1989 included: James Garner, mayor of Hempstead, N.Y.; Wallace Holland, mayor of Pontiac, Mich.; Keith Butler, the first Republican elected to the Detroit City Council in 20 years; Melba Marsh, Hamilton County (Cincinnati) municipal court judge; Guy Reece, Columbus, Ohio, municipal judge; and Frank Turner, the first Republican on the Raleigh, N.C., City Council since Reconstruction.
RNC sponsors training conferences to teach black Republican activists the fine points of fund raising, media relations, and campaign strategy. The next one, for Northeastern states, takes place in Philadelphia, June 8-10.
RNC also is encouraging the formation of Republican chapters at historically black colleges. Five new chapters opened during the past year, including ones at Florida A&M and Tennessee State.
But the GOP's No. 1 need is for attractive, bright minority candidates like Brown, who can woo a Democratic crowd as easily as a Republican one.
Brown demonstrated that skill at a recent political meeting in a local black church, where he fielded sometimes hostile questions on everything from South Africa to his GOP credentials, and drew frequent applause. Samples:
On sanctions: ``I will not sponsor a bill to add further sanctions to South Africa. ... My mother used to tell me, `Sweep around your own front door first before you run around and try to sweep around everyone else's.' My broom is gong to be sweeping around the Third District.''
On poverty: ``I grew up in the west end [of Louisville]. I know what it's like to have nothing. There's nobody in this room who's been any poorer than we've been. [But] I don't believe in handouts. ... People [must] take advantage of opportunities.''
Brown's sense of humor is always close to the surface. Does he disagree with President Bush on any key issue?
``Certainly,'' he says. ``Broccoli is my favorite vegetable.''