On a holiday dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Connecticut Democrats and Republicans engaged Monday in election-year politicking with blunt appeals to one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs: African Americans.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who benefited from a huge urban turnout in the close 2010 election, described his Democratic administration as keeping faith with the ideals of the slain civil rights leader, touting his efforts to protect voting rights and promote economic equality.
Malloy was a featured speaker at an annual remembrance at the State Capitol in the Hall of the Flags. Standing at the same microphone an hour earlier, Republicans had announced a new GOP outreach to black voters.
“They have a lot of work to do,” Malloy said.
It is an assessment that many Republicans don’t dispute, either here or in Washington. The GOP lets many legislative and municipal elections in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford go uncontested, and Republicans Monday shied away from listing issues on which their party can win black voters from the Democratic ranks.
In Washington, the Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” issued a scathing self-assessment in March, concluding that the party was losing nearly every demographic except white males, whose political clout was diminishing with every election cycle.
Regina Roundtree of Farmington, the founder of BRAC, Black Republicans and Conservatives, said the effort she organized grew out of local concerns about a one-party system that she says ill-serves minorities. But she was also motivated by the bleak warnings issued by the national party in its report.
If demographics are destiny, the GOP is endangered.
“The minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050,” the report noted. “Today these minority groups make up 37 percent of the population, and they cast a record 28 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election, according to the election exit polls, an increase of 2 percentage points from 2008. We have to work harder at engaging demographic partners and allies.”
Roundtree, who was joined by fewer than a dozen other black Republicans, acknowledged that networking among black conservatives in Connecticut has not been easy. It sounded as though Roundtree was describing the sightings of rare birds as she talked about getting leads on where to find like-minded black voters.
“I will say it is very hard to find Republicans of color in Connecticut. It’s like an underground railroad,” she said, smiling. “I would go and talk to someone, and they would be, ‘Oh I know a black Republican in that town over there. Why don’t you call that person.’ ”
Her audience laughed.
Roundtree acknowledged the small number of black Republicans at the news conference.
“There are many more. I don’t want you to think this is it,” Roundtree said. “There are quite a few of us in this state, and I think by forming this organization and putting it together, what I’ve been able to do is get the party excited about the opportunity to reach out to the urban community.”
Sen. John P. McKinney of Fairfield, the leader of the GOP minority in the state Senate and a candidate for governor, joined Roundtree at the lectern. Like Roundtree, McKinney spoke broadly about Republican core beliefs, avoiding specific issues.
“It’s about taking a message of limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal freedoms, accountability, better education into our urban areas, just as we’re willing to do it throughout the state of Connecticut,” McKinney said.
Neither addressed efforts by congressional Republicans to limit unemployment compensation, block an increase in the federal minimum wage or reduce funding for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Polling shows those positions are at odds with urban black voters.
In his remarks, Malloy talked about specific government programs supported by Democrats and linked them to the legacy of King, especially on economic issues. He noted that King was assassinated on a trip to Memphis in support of sanitation workers who walked off the job demanding safer working conditions, better compensation and the right to unionize.
Malloy said his administration implemented an earned income tax credit to help this state’s working poor, and he also helped win passage of an increase in the state minimum wage. His initiatives to increase funding for early childhood education help young children, while allowing their parents to work.
The governor also portrayed the state’s new Election Day registration law as a step toward easing ballot access at a time when many states are imposing identification requirements that Democrats say are intended to discourage voting by the poor and urban minorities.
“When it comes to voting rights, we are going in a different direction than most other states,” Malloy said. In an interview after his speech, he suggested that GOP outreach efforts to minorities inevitably founder on the rocks of specific issues. “I think the Republican Party by and large has been on the wrong side of these issues and many others for several generations.”
U.S. Sen. RIchard Blumenthal, D-Conn., delivered a similar message at the MLK observance, where the only elected officials to speak were Democrats.
Roundtree’s audience included James Griffin and Russell Williams, Republicans who are former leaders of NAACP chapters in Waterbury and Hartford, and at least two urban Republicans who have tried with mixed success to broaden the GOP base in New Haven and Norwalk, Chris DePino and Peter Torrano.
DePino, a former legislator and state GOP chairman, said previous efforts have been sporadic and some have been top-down. He said he was encouraged that Roundtree came to the party and that her approach was starting with a grass-roots outreach in a dozen communities.
Torrano, the Republican chairman of Norwalk, a city where the GOP has been competitive, said he attended Roundtree’s press conference because the party’s continued relevance in Norwalk depend on drawing minority voters. About 10 of the 100 seats on his Republican town committee are held by minorities.
“We need to do better,” he said. “We need some guidance.”
Last fall, the city’s long-serving Republican mayor was unseated by a Democrat.