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An African-American switch for the GOP

By Robert S. Sargent. Jr.
web posted May 12, 2003

In the April 27 edition of the Washington Post, George Will wrote a column that was headed: "African American Inroads for the GOP." He told of three black Republicans who won statewide offices in Texas and wrote, "Their successes suggest how Republicans might make modest progress with African American voters." Michael Williams, one of the three black Republicans, was reelected to the Texas Railroad Commission (this regulates the oil and gas industries) and said that the way Republicans can make inroads with African Americans is "slowly, state by state, with statewide candidates." Something happened recently in the state of North Carolina, which could give some hope to this process.

Last November in a three-way race for two Superior Court judge seats, special Superior Court judge Ola Lewis won a seat against two incumbents. She became only the second African American woman Superior Court judge in North Carolina. Then on April 17th of this year, Judge Lewis changed her voter registration to Republican. In a couple of email correspondences, Judge Lewis told me:

"The decision to change party affiliations was not one that I took lightly. I have prayed over the matter, searched my soul and have decided this is the best thing that has happened to me since my Baptism. I grew up in a conservative environment. I did not understand the term 'conservative' when I was growing up but I did understand the lifestyle. My parents went to church, worked hard and lived by a set of values which they instilled in me. My father taught me to find good role models. A person who had the most influence on me in law school was Allyson Duncan, Republican, African American lawyer who was the first woman of color to serve on the North Carolina Court of Appeals. She tutored me and others and always had encouraging words of wisdom. Her mother, Mrs. Ann Duncan, taught me to write and prepared me to take the North Carolina Bar exam. I was successful and Judge Duncan swore me in as a new lawyer, ready to conquer the world. My race (for Superior Court Judge) was very divisive. It opened my eyes to what is really important in life. Faith, family, hard work, community involvement and principles: All of which were important in my upbringing. All of which I find in the Republican Party. I have known this for quite some time. It was only after going through the 'fire' of the campaign that I had the courage to change parties."

JC Watts said, "Many Afro-Americans are conservative but vote Democratic by habit." Judge Ola Lewis is a perfect example: Conservative all her life, she was a registered Democrat all her life. The problem then is how to change those "habits," and in her case, the change came through the 'fire' of an election. But how do Republicans change the habits of the conservative Afro-American voter? Judge Lewis told me, "The key to recruiting more Afro-Americans is education and a willingness to go to the African American communities and say, 'This is who we are and what we truly believe.'" Note that Judge Lewis did not say "Tell them 'we are willing to listen to your concerns and we will be ready to change our stand on some of the issues that affect you, blah, blah, blah.'" She said, "Tell them, 'This is who we are and what we truly believe!" Listen up Republicans: Principle matters!

I asked Jonathan Jordan, the Communications Director of the North Carolina Republican Party to address the Party's response to Judge Ola Lewis in particular and to minority recruitment in general. He said, "The information on Judge Lewis (about her affiliation switch) was emailed to more than 9,000 supporters in our state, along with fax and email releases to more than 500 media outlets in North Carolina. Minority recruitment is very important to the North Carolina Republican Party, and we are very proud that Judge Lewis made the decision that she did."

By the way, I asked Judge Lewis if she would ever consider running for public office. She replied, "So many Democrats have said, 'You have just committed political suicide! Your career is over!' I disagree completely, (and) yes, I would run for public office in a heartbeat." I think we're all going to hear a lot more from Ola Lewis.

This is the story of just one "inroad for the GOP", but in Michael Williams' formula of "slowly, state by state," this is a huge link in that process.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

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