Our favorite County probate clerk, Paul Boyd, was interviewed by the Tennessean at the RNC convention.
Paul Boyd concedes that winning minority voters for this year’s Republican presidential ticket might be tough. But he remains optimistic for his party.
“It’s difficult when you’re running against the very first African-American president,” the Tennessee delegate said. “But I think there will be a tremendous emphasis on outreach going forward.”
The GOP will try to showcase its diversity at this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., an effort cynics may call window dressing but that some Republicans hope signals greater strides in the future.
The effort will run throughout the week, and while the schedule has been scrambled by Tropical Storm Isaac, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Senate candidate Ted Cruz of Texas and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, who as a Democrat gave the introduction for President Barack Obama at that party’s convention four years ago, are all scheduled to give prime-time addresses.
Although the party is still overwhelmingly white, Republicans hope to demonstrate a widening tent in which racial and ethnic differences have taken a back seat to shared conservative ideology.
The prominence of African-American, Asian-American and Latino speakers is unlikely to persuade many minority voters to switch allegiance from the Democratic Party in the short term, say political observers and even some Republicans. But by putting diversity front and center throughout the convention, Republicans can signal to white independents that their differences with Democrats are not racially motivated.
Steps toward diversity in the Tennessee GOP have been halting. The state’s delegation will include at least one black member, Boyd, who holds elected office as Shelby County’s probate court clerk. Gov. Bill Haslam also has highlighted diversity within his cabinet, which includes commissioners who are African-American, Asian-American and Latino.
But the governor has come under fire for hiring a Tennessee-born Muslim to supervise the state’s overseas trade missions. And Republican lawmakers and candidates have gained national attention for opposing construction of a mosque in Rutherford County and supporting legislation that branded many Islamic organizations as “terrorist” groups subject to being shut down by the state.
“It’s a struggle for our party, when it comes to ethnic diversity,” Boyd said. “There are some in the party who absolutely understand that the party has to become a party for all Americans, and then there are some who don’t think it’s that important.”
The Republican Party has wrestled with the question of diversity for the past several election cycles. Prognosticators have predicted doom for the GOP if it cannot widen its base as the nation’s Asian and Latino bases explode.
California has been cited as an example of the party’s future. Democrats now dominate the state that produced Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, as Republicans have struggled in recent years to appeal to California’s fast-growing immigrant and native-born minority populations.
The trend has run in the opposite direction in Tennessee and across the South, as Republicans have come to dominate statehouses and congressional delegations. Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University who studies the GOP’s rise in the South, says the Republican Party’s lack of diversity owes less to its failure to appeal to minorities than to Democrats’ inability to attract white voters.
“Democrats have a majority problem in Tennessee,” Black said. “This is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party.”
Meanwhile, two children of Indian immigrants — Haley in South Carolina and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana — have been elected as Republican governors of Southern states. Republicans also have sent two African-American members to Congress from the South for the first time since Reconstruction — Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rep. Allen West of Florida — and they are poised to send a second Latino to the Senate, Cruz.
Cruz, who will face Democrat Paul Sadler in November in a state that leans heavily Republican, would join Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio is scheduled to formally introduce Mitt Romney before he accepts the presidential nomination Thursday night.
Haley and Cruz also have been given prominent speaking slots at the convention. They will be joined in prime time by other people of color, including New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Jindal was scheduled to speak but canceled his plans to attend the convention as forecasters indicated Tropical Storm Isaac could hit Louisiana.
The lineup takes in practically every minority Republican who holds a prominent office. But it does not necessarily demonstrate that Republicans are becoming more diverse, said Efrén Pérez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who studies bias.
“It’s open to minorities of a certain type,” he said of the GOP. “The types of minority candidates for office that they’re recruiting, they’re not prototypes of the groups that they ascribe to.”
The subject of race has bubbled beneath the surface throughout this year’s campaign, most recently as Romney has attacked the Obama administration’s record on welfare reform. Commentators have said such attacks subtly play to white voters’ biases without turning off moderates by overtly bringing up Obama’s race.
Meanwhile, Republican activists last week proposed a campaign platform that calls for ending federal challenges to state-level immigration measures, building a double-layer fence at the U.S. border with Mexico and implementing policies to encourage undocumented immigrants to leave the country.
Such political positioning undermines any goodwill built up among minorities by the selection of convention speakers, said Pérez.
“If you were to look at the last 25 years of Republican messaging and platform, I don’t think you’d find it to be something friendly to non-white voters,” he said. “It’s very hard to undo that messaging.”
Diversity at the convention is most effective in winning over white independents, said Monique Lyle, also a Vanderbilt University political scientist who specializes in studying racial attitudes. Although white themselves, these voters may believe it’s important to vote for a party that is open to non-whites.
“At the end of the day, who they’re really trying to send this message to is independents, because that’s who they’re more likely to move,” she said.
The prominence of minority Republicans such as Haley, Cruz and Scott could signal a subtle shift in the psychology of conservative voters. Both won the Republican nomination in hard-fought primaries.
Tennessee Republican races have featured few minority candidates. And with no black Republicans and only one Hispanic, state Sen. Dolores Gresham, in the General Assembly, Tennessee appears far from producing the next Republican superstar of color.
But Richard Garvin, a Smyrna business manager who ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature this summer, said he nonetheless believes Tennessee Republicans are willing to embrace black conservatives. Garvin, who is black, attributed his loss to Dawn White, who is white, to her longer involvement in Rutherford County politics.
“They’ve been very accepting of me,” Garvin said. “There was a point where people were assuming, ‘He’s just a Democrat running on a Republican platform.’ … But I got a lot of support.”
Boyd, the Republican delegate from Memphis, was unchallenged in the GOP primary and rode a Republican sweep of Shelby County offices in 2010. Afterward, Boyd was asked by the Romney campaign to help it recruit Shelby County office holders, which resulted in his being placed on the March ballot as a Romney delegate.
Boyd said he gravitated to Republican politics a decade ago as a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Describing himself as a conservative and evangelical Christian, Boyd said the party’s platform probably appeals to more blacks than many might think.
Boyd said he dislikes it when commentators attempt to dismiss black Republicans as being atypical of African-Americans.
“When they say we don’t count, it sounds to me like they’re saying, ‘He’s not really black,’ ” Boyd said.
He added that he does not doubt some white Republicans quietly refuse to vote for candidates like him because he is black. But he said he suspects many white Democrats feel the same way and that many black Democrats similarly will not cast their ballots for white candidates.
“When it comes down to it, I’m not going to say racism doesn’t exist, because it does,” he said. “What I’m trying to say is that it does not happen nearly as often as some people would like to say it happens, and it happens on both sides.
“Race is out there.”