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Want black votes, GOP? Listen to black voters

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Contributor
January 23, 2013 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Roland Martin says one reason the GOP draws mainly white voters is its leaders' reluctance to reach out and listen to minorities.
Roland Martin says one reason the GOP draws mainly white voters is its leaders' reluctance to reach out and listen to minorities.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roland Martin: GOP National Committee's Priebus dodges appearing on Martin shows
  • He says GOP leaders in general avoid interacting with blacks; they lose black votes this way
  • He says GOP leaders seem to think blacks don't have same concerns as all Americans
  • Martin: One area where GOP, minority voters might share goals: sentencing reform

Editor's note: Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

(CNN) -- For more than a year I've tried to get Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus to make an appearance on my Sunday morning news show on TV One, the nation's second-largest black cable network.

He has also been invited to appear on my daily segment on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," with 8 million listeners.

Although Priebus did tell me "yes" a year ago, on the day of the GOP primary debate in South Carolina, he has yet to show up and talk GOP politics to either of these audiences.

This is no shock to me, because most white Republicans I've invited appear to be deathly afraid to accept invites to appear on both shows. In fact, it has been tough even getting a callback or an e-mail from GOP staffers.

Since the debut of my show, "Washington Watch," in September 2009, we have had an open invitation for any member of the GOP House or Senate Conference to appear on the show. In four years, only four -- Reps. Tom Price (twice), Allen West, Steve King, and Pete Olson -- have appeared on the show.

Roland Martin
Roland Martin

None was verbally attacked. None was called a bigot or a racist. None was prevented from talking. We had polite, but firm, discourse on multiple issues. Any of them would tell you I was more than fair, providing them with a forum to discuss their policy differences with President Barack Obama and Democrats.

Think about that: Even GOP backbenchers who rarely get called to appear on a national TV or radio show seem afraid to show up.

You would think they'd welcome a chance to share their policies with a constituency that routinely doesn't vote for them. But Republicans routinely pass it up, and then wonder why they don't get the votes of blacks and other minorities.

What I'm describing points up a much larger problem with the GOP and its inability to speak to issues that all voters care about.

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That's why I find it interesting that at the GOP retreat this past weekend in Virginia, there was a session entitled, "Coalitions-Discussion on Successful Comms w/ Minorities & Women."

Comms stands for "communications."

If Republicans want to understand how to successfully communicate with minorities and women, it sure would help to actually go to the forums where minorities and women read, listen and watch.

When Michael Steele was chairman of the RNC, he appeared on my TV show and radio segments on many occasions. I could call him on his cell phone or at home and book him on a moment's notice. See, Steele understood that if you want to communicate a policy to black people, it helps to talk to them. Maybe his being black is the reason.

The mental block that keeps the GOP from engaging black folks and others could have something to do with its perception of the issues we care about.

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For instance, a prominent black Republican in Illinois told me about a presentation a few years ago with party elders about how they could attract black voters. When it was all done, this Republican said, the first comment from the floor was, "We are not going to support welfare."

The group of black Republicans was puzzled: "We didn't even bring up welfare. What are you talking about?"

The GOP apparently has the idea that minorities don't care about education, taxes, entrepreneurship, homeownership, and a litany of other issues.

When Republicans speak to black folks and the main thing they have to say is that the GOP is the party of Lincoln and he freed the slaves, then you have a problem.

Yes, Republicans played a critical role in civil rights legislation during the 1950s and 1960s while Southern Democrats were obstructionists -- but it's the GOP's concern for blacks and minorities in the last four decades that has been troubling and problematic.

Republican consultants will say that cultivating minority voters is a waste of time. That's a short-term view. I would think that allowing the opposition party to get 90% of a group's vote without lifting a finger -- because your own ineptitude prevents you from making your case -- means trouble long-term.

Republicans could compete for minority votes if they were actually interested in listening to the concerns of said voters. But if they just want to talk to minority voters and not listen, they cannot compete.

I know a bunch of African-Americans who don't self-identify as Democrats. They, and I am one of them, have voted for both Republicans and Democrats. The issues that we care about vary. It's not about ideology or party; it's about what you can do to be of help to those in need.

If the GOP wants to learn how to communicate with minorities, it must listen to and work with the numerous minority Republicans who have been shouting this from the rooftop for years.

You want to hear evidence from a couple of white guys? Pick up the phone and call former U.S. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio. He enjoyed sizable black support because when he was mayor of Cleveland, he didn't avoid minorities and treat them as outcasts. He sat down with them, shared their concerns, and worked on public policy -- together.

Give Mike Huckabee a ring. When he was governor of Arkansas, he earned a lot of black votes for the same reason as Voinovich. He has urged the GOP to reach out.

One issue where Republicans are finding themselves working with black civil rights leaders and pastors is in the area of sentencing reform. African-Americans see a legal system that has turned into a moneymaking machine for private prisons. GOP governors see state budgets out of control.

A major civil rights leader told me he has found more success working with GOP governors than Democratic governors on sentencing reform.

This is an example of what happens when individuals sit down, talk, share their concerns, and find common ground.

But as long as the GOP is scared to even sit down with black folks and other minorities, it can expect to keep getting dusted at the ballot box. And don't look to blame anyone else but yourselves, when you were given the chance and your own ignorance prevented you from reaching across the divide to talk.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland Martin.

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