Is the Republican Party Ready to Welcome Black Conservatives into Ranks?

Article excerpt

WHEN Gary Franks, the only black Republican in Congress, visits African-American churches or social clubs, he asks his audiences for their views on a range of divisive political issues.

Usually, Mr. Franks says, blacks tell him they support the death penalty, a moment of silence in public schools, a balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and welfare reform.

"Congratulatons!" Franks announces. "You've just agreed with some very conservative views. You're honorary Republicans!" And how do his audiences react to that startling statement? "I get a chuckle," Franks concedes ruefully.

It's no wonder that many laugh at Franks's bravado. After all, blacks are the most solidly Democratic voting bloc in the United States. In one recent survey, 85 percent of blacks identified themselves as Democrats; only 8.9 percent said they were Republicans. Exit polls indicate that only about 10 percent of blacks voted for Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

Yet a few hairline fractures are beginning to appear in the seemingly solid facade of the black voting bloc.

President Bush has appointed several high-profile blacks, most notably Gen. Colin Powell as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice.

And a number of black Republicans have run for elected office. This year, for example, 11 blacks have won Republican primaries for US House seats, and Alan Keyes is the GOP standard-bearer in Maryland's US Senate race.

But electoral success has been harder to come by. Only about 85 of the roughly 7,400 black elected officials in the United States are Republicans. Among the most prominent are Franks, who won an election in a largely white Connecticut district in 1990, and J.C. Watts, elected the same year to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Yet a recent survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal black think tank in Washington, D.C., supports - at least in part - Franks's contention that blacks are more conservative on some issues than their voting patterns would indicate. For example, polls show that most blacks oppose unrestricted abortion, support the death penalty, and back welfare reform (see story, p.6).

David Bositis, the researcher who conducted the survey, cautions that the results should not be interpreted as evidence that African-Americans are becoming right-wing.

They do, however, show that "blacks are not at all different" from the rest of the population in their opinions, he says.

Some Republicans go further: They argue that the black community is growing disenchanted with liberal Democratic policies that have been unable to eradicate inner-city poverty.

They also argue that, while around 90 percent of blacks will vote for Gov. …