Staged Right?

Black & white silhouettes of people, on red background, 6-2-95
This column was written by Garance Franke-Ruta.
"The party of [Abraham] Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is here to compete," Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ken Mehlman announced Thursday night at Howard University, one of the nation's most prestigious historically black colleges.

The scene: a small hall in a little-used campus building, far from the hustle and bustle of the student center.

The action: part of an ongoing series of "Conversations with the Community" launched during Black History Month that has led the RNC to hold forums with minority voters in Florida, New Jersey, and Maryland as part of a new effort to improve the Republican Party's standing with critical Democratic constituencies. "This is a long-term investment," said RNC spokesman Danny Diaz.

The target audience: five television cameras and more than a dozen reporters recorded Mehlman's words. ABC's The Note has characterized media coverage of Mehlman's outreach efforts thus far as positive and "respectful."

The message: "Give us a chance and we'll give you a choice." Mehlman sprinkled the phrase throughout his speech.

But judging from the non-media audience at the forum, the party has its work cut out for it to get younger African Americans to give it a chance.

Sure, Betsy Werronen, former chair of the D.C. Republican Party, and Margaret Pickering, from Ward 3 in far northwestern D.C., showed up at Howard in their neat, well-to-do suits. Deborah Thomas, former chair of the Prince George's Community College Republicans, and Damien Clifton, a volunteer at RNC headquarters, trekked over to the campus for the evening. So did Grant Collins III, the chief of staff in the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and HHS policy specialist Rehana Mwarimu. Even Andrea Johnson, an engineer from the American Petroleum Institute, the trade association and lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, managed to make it over to Howard, where she stood in the back of the audience for Mehlman' speech, her long blonde hair cascading down her shoulders.

But of the 50 people seated in the small forum hall, fewer than five, in addition to the half dozen College Republican organizers of the forum, were Howard University students, said third-year broadcast-journalism major Ray Baker, 20, a Democrat who attended the forum with a friend. "It was overwhelmingly Republican adults," said Baker. A scan of the room confirmed the vast majority of audience members to be well beyond college age, and 14 of these seated adults were, like Werronen, white.

If Howard University students voted with their feet and chose not to hear Mehlman speak, it wasn't for lack of trying by the College Republican sponsors of the forum, who posted 75 fliers around Howard's campus, including inside the political-science department, and sent e-mailed invitations to five different student groups. "There were a couple of students in there," said Adam Hunter, 21, chairman of Howard's College Republicans, defending the attendance.

An RNC press release on the forum, distributed before Mehlman spoke, stated: "Chairman Mehlman … engaged students in a Q & A."

Some undergrads who wanted to do just that, however, found their reception less than welcoming. When Erick Watson, a 25-year-old part-time student, declined to submit a written question at the door before hearing the speech, he says he and his friend Jason Ravin, a 23-year-old senior, were refused entry by RNC Outreach Communications Director Tara Wall and RNC African-American Coalition Director Deana Bass. "They had the security escort me out of the building," Watson said. "They said I might raise my hand."

Individuals trying to attend President Bush's Social Security "town halls" in Denver and Fargo, North Dakota, have also accused Republicans of blocking them from attending events. The Secret Service has launched an investigation of the Denver residents' claims.

After making his remarks, Mehlman answered pre-submitted questions read by Hunter and a few questions from older Republicans in the audience who raised their hands.

"It's completely anti-intellectual to come to a university in the District of Columbia and prevent a student from entering because they haven't pre-submitted a question," said Watson. "It certainly tells me that the Republican Party is not interested in any kind of critical analysis of their policies. They are interested in having the students of this university serve as props."

"They told the young man and myself we couldn't enter," says Ravin. "I asked [Wall] why, and she said he was belligerent." After speaking to Wall some more, Ravin concedes, she relented. "They told me eventually I could come in, but I didn't want to if my friend couldn't come in."

After the event, the College Republican's Hunter sought out Watson, who had stood outside the event building throughout Mehlman's presentation, gossiping with other students about what happened, and apologized to him. Wall, for her part, denied that there had been any problem. "I never stopped you," she told Watson after the event, before declaring herself off the record.

The tight security nonetheless failed to prevent a disruption of Mehlman's presentation. The Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr., a 35-year-old masters' degree candidate at Howard's School of Divinity and former president of that school's student government association, was wrestled to the ground and hustled from the forum after dashing past police and entering with a bullhorn, shouting, "Not on our campus!" Audience members applauded after Yearwood was removed from the room.

Interviewed after the event, where he was standing outside with roughly two dozen supportive students, Yearwood said his goal had been to present Mehlman with a six-page compilation of press reports on "GOP intimidation of minority voters" and ask him to answer for it.

Four students standing with Yearwood held signs reading "Not On Our Campus. We Know Our History." They, too, were barred from the forum. "Once they saw the posters, they knew," says Jasmine Mason, 19, a sophomore business-management student. "As soon as we walked up to them, it was like, 'We're full.'"

"The security guards, all of them came out afterward and apologized," said Yearwood, who also chairs the Hip Hop Caucus, a progressive Democratic group.

Inside the forum, Mehlman presented the audience of TV stations, Republican Party functionaries, and volunteers with President Bush's agenda of private retirement accounts, medical savings accounts, expanding the No Child Left Behind Act, and funding faith-based service programs, homeownership, and democracy-promotion. Martin Luther King Jr.'s description of the black condition the night before he was slain -- "The cry is always the same: 'We want to be free.'" -- found echo, Mehlman said, in the Republican Party's desire to "make sure everyone has the choice, the freedom of the American dream."

But even if students agreed with Mehlman's assessment that "the African American community is well served if both parties are competing for support," they didn't think Mehlman was willing to compete freely in the marketplace of ideas at the campus forum. "I liked the effort, what they were trying to do, but I don't think they accomplished it," said Baker, who called the questions Mehlman was asked "all softballs."

"To change minds they'd have to come out here and say, 'Look, we're here to listen,'" he said. "They said, 'Look, this is who we are. Make your choice.'"

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved