Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told black voters Wednesday that backing him over the Democratic incumbent, who won their overwhelming support in 2008, is in the best interest of their families.
“I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president,” Romney will tell the NAACP’s annual meeting, according to excerpts of his speech that were released early by his campaign.
“I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color – and families of any color – more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I would not be running for president,” he says.
Romney, running against the nation’s first black president, isn’t going to win the African American vote. But he’s making the pitch and giving a major speech that’s also aimed at showing independent and swing voters that he’s willing to reach out to diverse audiences – and demonstrating that his campaign and the Republican Party he leads are inclusive.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone,” Romney says. “Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way.”
The 14.4 percent unemployment rate among blacks is much higher than the 8.2 percent national average. Blacks tend to be unemployed longer, and black families have a lower median income, Romney says.
Romney will also highlight his education plans. He has called education the “civil rights issue of our era.”
If equal opportunity were “an accomplished fact,” Romney says “black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life. Instead, for generations, the African-American community has been waiting and waiting for that promise to be kept.”
All told, it’s a difficult sell – 95 percent of blacks backed Obama in 2008. But Romney’s speech aside, Republicans and Democrats say he’s making a statement just by speaking to the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group.
“The first thing you need to do is show up, so I ultimately think he’s doing the right thing,” said Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of two black Republicans in Congress. “What he’s saying to everyone is that he’s (running to become) America’s president and not just those folks he thinks he can get votes from right now. I think that’s a very important statement.” Most people hearing that statement thought the Congressman was just another foolish republican Statement along party lines and not serious.
“You’ve got to get credit for showing up – for being willing to go – no question,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. “It’s more about your actions than it is about what you say.”
Obama spoke to the group during the 2008 campaign, as did his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Obama doesn’t plan to speak this year. Instead, Vice President Joe Biden will address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Thursday. Obama is scheduled to address the National Urban League later this month.
Romney rarely speaks to predominantly black audiences at political events. One exception was a May visit to a charter school in Philadelphia, where he cast fixing the education system as a way to help blacks and other minorities. Most people thought Romney Showed he was out of touch with reality at that event.
In framing education as a civil rights issue, Romney is following in George W. Bush’s footsteps. At a sweeping address to the NAACP in 2000, Bush, then the Republican presidential nominee, said the education system should “leave no child behind” and labeled the “soft bigotry of low expectations” as part of the problem facing black students.
Romney has a personal history with civil rights issues. His father, George, spoke out against segregation in the 1960s and, as governor of Michigan, toured the state’s inner cities as race riots wracked Detroit and other urban areas across the country. He went on to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he pushed for housing reforms to help blacks.
Mitt Romney invoked that legacy during a 2007 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “My dad’s reputation … and my own has always been one of reaching out to people and not discriminating based upon race or anything else.”
In recent months, Obama has approached race from an intensely personal perspective. After the shooting of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin in a Florida neighborhood – an act many blacks saw as racially motivated – Obama spoke directly to Martin’s parents from the Rose Garden. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.
Diminished enthusiasm for the president following the economic downturn could dampen black turnout, and that could make the difference in Southern states Obama won in 2008, particularly North Carolina and Virginia.
Other factors could keep blacks away from voting booths. Romney’s address to the NAACP comes as Democrats and minority communities are expressing concern over a series of tough voter identification laws in a handful of states. Critics say the laws could make it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote.
“He’ll be standing in that room asking people for their votes at the same time that Republican legislators are trying to disenfranchise minority communities,” said Finney, the Democratic consultant.
Romney expressed support for such laws during a late April visit to Pennsylvania, which now has one of the toughest voter identification statutes in the nation. “We ought to have voter identification so we know who’s voting and we have a record of that,” Romney said then.