John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Picking at the Scabs of Race Relations

Posted on October 30, 2014
Reince Priebus by Gage Skidmore.jpg

"Reince Priebus by Gage Skidmore" by Gage Skidmore - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1950, Jesse Helms was in charge of publicity for the Senatorial campaign of Wills Smith, a conservative Democrat, a campaign that featured fliers with the unambiguous heading, “Wake Up, White People.”

Helms would later run and win as a Senator from North Carolina.  In 1990, running against Harvey Gantt, the Helms campaign released an ad that tightly focused on a pair of white hands, crumpling up a job-rejection letter, with a voice over that he lost the job because they had to hire a minority.

That was a couple of years after George H.W. Bush ran an ad against Michael Dukakis that featured Willie Horton.  Horton, a convicted murderer and an African American, had committed several crimes after being allowed out on a weekend furlough while Dukakis was Governor.

Historians point to these ads as prime examples of a low point in our nation’s political history, when Republicans used race-baiting to win elections.

Lee Atwater, the Republican campaign advisor to President Bush, would later express deep regret in his role with the Willie Horton ad.

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was fashionable for Republicans to use race-baiting techniques to win elections.

That was wrong then.  It is wrong now.

But it’s not Republicans who are doing it today.  It’s the Democrats.  And they aren’t baiting white voters to vote against black interests.  They are baiting black voters to vote against Republicans.

Here is a disturbing story from the New York Times.
In the final days before the election, Democrats in the closest Senate races across the South are turning to racially charged messages — invoking Trayvon Martin’s death, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Jim Crow-era segregation — to jolt African-Americans into voting and stop a Republican takeover in Washington. The images and words they are using are striking for how overtly they play on fears of intimidation and repression. And their source is surprising. The effort is being led by national Democrats and their state party organizations — not, in most instances, by the shadowy and often untraceable political action committees that typically employ such provocative messages.

It might be that the Democrats are doing this because of widespread disenchantment among black voters with the current state of the nation and deep concern that they won’t turn out this election.

The poverty rate among African Americans has not improved in the Obama years, black unemployment is far worse than white unemployment and the gap in the standard of living is growing wider between blacks and the rest of the country.

Republicans sense an opportunity and are trying hard to make inroads with black voters.

Here is an interesting story about Bruce Rauner, the billionaire Republican running for the Governor in Illinois and his efforts to court the black vote.
It's part of an unconventional strategy for Rauner, a billionaire venture capitalist who is spending time in an overwhelmingly African-American community that gave nearly unanimous support to President Obama and instinctively votes Democratic. Several prospective Republican presidential candidates, including Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, have engaged in minority outreach, but it has been rare for top Republican candidates to make it such a prominent part of their strategy in the final stage of an actual campaign. Rauner is doing just that. Locked in a tight race with a Democratic governor, Rauner's campaign is convinced that if he can get about 15 percent of a usually-monolithic black vote, he's got the election locked up. "Pat Quinn is taking the African-American vote for granted. He's talking, but he's not delivering results!" he thundered at a debate that night cosponsored by the Chicago Urban League.

Here is what Reince Priebus, the RNC Chairman, told a group of black journalists about his efforts to grow the black vote for the GOP:
We have become a national party that has decided that it’s OK to show up once every four years about five months before an election. We’ve become a national party that really is a U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee. We have forgotten the mechanics. I understand that this is not something that’s going to change overnight. What I’m saying is instead of getting 6% of the black vote in this country, if we get out there and fight and talk to people, then we get 15, then we get 20, and two years later we get 22 and 23. I’m in this for the long haul.

Priebus and Rauner are serious about trying to attract votes in all communities.  Priebus, for example, has been very supportive of Jim Sensenbrenner’s bipartisan efforts to update the Voting Rights Act.

The Republican Party is not the race-baiting party of Jesse Helms.  If it were, South Carolina wouldn’t be sending Tim Scott back to the Senate with an overwhelming vote next Tuesday.

The one person I get asked about more than any other potential Republican Presidential candidate is not Ted Cruz.  It’s Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon.

Neither Ben Carson nor Tim Scott would have felt comfortable in the Republican Party of Jesse Helms.

They feel completely comfortable in today’s Republican Party.

That is not to say that everything is perfect with the GOP.  It still has its share of wing-nuts, racists and race-baiters.

But the Republican Party is not overtly using race to drive white voters to the polls.

Unfortunately, the Democrat Party has taken the wrong lessons from history.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

What Helms and Atwater did was wrong.

What the modern Democratic Party is doing today is equally wrong.

It is hard to get racial healing when our politicians keep picking at the scabs of our racial history.

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More