The Year of the Black Conservative

Note: This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Tea Party Review Magazine, which made its debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 11th, 2011.

They called it “The Year of the Black Republican”. In 2006, the year I first ran for public office, the Republican National Committee was making a concerted effort to promote minority candidates. I attended the RNC Minority Candidate College for training in how to run a successful campaign, and I met black and Hispanic Republican candidates from across the nation and at all levels of government.

Ken Mehlman, then the chairman of the RNC, gave a rousing speech to the class in which he repeatedly uttered the slogan, “Give us a chance and we’ll give you a choice.” He spoke across the nation to minority audiences, including the annual convention of the NAACP, and touted his message of inclusion and his family history, in which his father was a card-carrying member of the Baltimore NAACP.

In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Ken Blackwell and Lynn Swann were seeking to become the first black governors of their respective states. Keith Butler was running to be the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Michigan, and Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele was a strong contender to claim a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland. In both cases, history would also have been made, as these men would have been the first black U.S. senators from either state.

Keith Butler didn’t make it past the primary, and gubernatorial candidates lost in the general election. Michael Steele, the highest ranking elected black official in America at the time, had stepped down as Maryland’s lieutenant governor to run for the U.S. Senate, and he also came up empty-handed. I lost my race as well, as did most of the friends I had made at the RNC Minority Candidate College. It didn’t matter if you were a black Republican or a white one; 2006 was a bad year, and “The Year of the Black Republican” ended with a whimper.

Fast forward to 2010, and the media and the GOP were caught by surprise when 32 black Republicans ran for the U.S. Congress, the most since the Reconstruction era - that's 134 years ago if you're counting. Fourteen of these men and women made it to the general election and two, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida, are now congressmen.

Dr. Grace Vuoto, the executive director of The Edmund Burke Institute for American Renewal, declared:

The black conservative movement is now stronger than it has been in decades. Ironically, the election of America's first black liberal president, Barack Obama, has sparked its antithesis: black conservative candidates across the nation insisting that blacks thrive best according to free market principles and traditional morality. Welcome to a brave new world.

Before I move on, I want to highlight some significant facts about the election of these two men to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tim Scott was a respected elected official at the local and state level before he ran for Congress, and in a predominantly white, conservative district, he won his primary and runoff over the sons of two of South Carolina's political dynasties.

He defeated Paul Thurmond, son of the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, and Carroll "Tumpy" Campbell, Jr., son of the late governor Carroll Campbell. Scott's defeat of Paul Thurmond was particularly noteworthy to me because of what the Thurmond family represented and the state in which his defeat occurred.

Strom Thurmond was one of the more prominent voices of the segregationist movement in the South. It was Thurmond who broke away from the Democratic Party in 1948 and formed the States Rights Democratic Party, known colloquially as the Dixiecrats, to defend institutionalized discrimination. The split was symbolic of South Carolina's history as the first state to secede from the Union and the first to fire shots in the Civil War with its attack on a supply ship seeking to fortify Fort Sumter. Thurmond conducted the longest filibuster in Senate history, 24 hours and 18 minutes, in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. He was also part of a bloc of senators who filibustered the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

By the way, one of his Democratic colleagues who voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. That's for all those people with pictures of the slain president on their mantles next to pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King, his brother Robert and, in many cases, Jesus Christ. But I digress.

Scott, Thurmond and Campbell were all running in a conservative congressional district which is 75% white and had been represented by a Republican for nearly 30 years. Yet despite the "favored son" status of two of the candidates in the nine-man field, despite South Carolina's history and the white demographic of the 1st Congressional District, it was Scott who led the pack in the primary and who trounced Thurmond 68% to 32% in the runoff.

Scott was a Tea Party favorite and was also endorsed by the influential, fiscally conservative Club for Growth. To me, nothing else that happened this election year proved the falsehood of Tea Party racism more than this congressional race.

Allen West won election in Florida's 22nd Congressional District, which is 82.3% white and went for Gore, Kerry and Obama in the past three presidential elections. He became the first black Republican congressman from Florida since a former slave served two terms in the 1870s. If anything, the fiery West, the third of four generations of his family to serve in the military, was even more of a Tea Party hero and is already being promoted as a candidate for President in 2012.

The accomplishments of these two men, and the dozens of black conservative candidates who stood for election, would certainly qualify 2010 as the Year of the Black Republican. But it is much more than that.

It is the Year of the Black Conservative, and we stand as evidence that the black community isn't a monolithic collective that thinks or acts the same. And we’re just getting started.