Virginia General Assembly Delegate Paul C. Harris is an African-American, but he isn't a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. It wasn't that he wasn't interested in joining an organization that focuses on black political issues. He was.
When Harris was invited to join in the winter of 1998 he responded with a few questions. The delegate wanted to know that if by joining he might be able to secure the support of the organization. The answer, according to Harris: a categorical no. Harris is black but he is also a Republican, a political affiliation that often is viewed with contempt by traditional black organizations.
"I inquired what was the purpose of the caucus," Harris says. "They explained the caucus was designed to elect more blacks to the legislature. They said they would not support me even if I was a member. Nor give me money. I could not even get a promise to not campaign against me."
While the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and the National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are opponents of the black conservative movement, African-Americans who lean to the right are speaking out and setting agendas for the commonwealth and the nation.
Harris has been invited to speak during the opening night of the Republican National Convention July 31. A similar slot propelled Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts into the national spotlight during the 1992 convention.
The movement is gaining national attention due to Republican Presidential Candidate Alan Keyes, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, anti-racial-preferences activist Ward Connerly and Watts. With their push for reform on affirmative action and public education, strict constructionist view of constitutional rights, and affirmation of individual responsibility and private-market solutions to social problems, black conservatives challenge established ways of conducting governmental business.
While the conservative political philosophy has been enjoying an upsurge for a generation among white Americans, blacks generally have leaned to the left for most of the last century. But as federal social programs have failed to solve the problems of inner-city education, crime and breakdown in the family structure, some blacks are turning to the right.
And this shift to the right could have a significant effect on this year's presidential elections.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies, says George W. Bush could expect to get 15 percent of the black vote. If the race is close, Sabato says, the black vote could decide who wins Virginia. "Usually open seat presidential races are close," he adds.
Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Claude Allen, who is an African-American Republican, also forecasts a swing in black voting patterns. He points to the prominence of black conservatives such as Rep. Watts in the Bush campaign, General Colin Powell's presence at the Republican Governor's Convention, and the Texas governor's appearance at the national NAACP convention as signs of a wider acceptance of blacks in the Republican Party. While most Republican candidates never seize even 10 percent of the black vote, Allen believes that Bush has a very good shot at 15 percent of the vote.
"The black electorate is more sophisticated than people give it credit for," Allen says. "Democrats are very concerned. If George W. Bush gets 15 to 20 percent (of the black vote) it's a death knell for the Democratic Party."
|(Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)|
|Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Claude Allen, an African-American Republican, predicts a conservative swing in black voting patterns in the near future and says it's not impossible, or even unlikely, that George W. Bush could get 15 percent of the black vote. "It's the death knell of the Democratic Party," he says.|
Del. Harris, a Republican General Assemblyman whose 58th district includes Albermarle, Rockingham and Green counties, is one of the newest representatives of the emerging black conservatives in Virginia. Elected in November 1997 with 63 percent of the vote, Harris sits in the seat once held by Thomas Jefferson and Gov. George Allen. He is the first black Republican to hold office in the General Assembly since 1891.
Harris found his way to the conservative side in 1986 while he was in college. He says he was disturbed by how the Soviet Union crushed the freedom of its own people and threatened the liberty and security of other nations. So it comes as no surprise that Harris found a hero in Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan, a man whose leadership has been credited with helping to dismantle the Soviet Union.
"Reagan's leadership style had a tremendous impact on my decision to become a Republican," Harris says.
Harris' own politics reflect Reagan-era family-value policies. In 1998 Harris sponsored The Family Impact Statement Act, a bill that would require heads of state agencies to review new legislation to determine its effect on family stability. The bill was defeated along largely partisan lines, but during the summer of 1999, Gov. Jim Gilmore signed the bill into law in the form of an executive order.
Harris said that the bill was crucial to African-Americans because much of federal legislation has had a destructive effect on the family.
"Aid For (Families With) Dependent Children served to break up family structures," Harris says. "We needed to assess their (laws) impact on the ability of families to remain together."
Harris was also a patron of The Family Access To Medical Insurance Program. The bill has been passed by the Virginia General Assembly, and the program is now awaiting approval by the Federal Health Care Financing Administration. The legislation would move lower-income families from the Medicaid rolls by allowing them to purchase private health coverage.
While the new health-care program will involve tax money, it should be less expensive than the current system, according to Secretary Allen.
Cutting costs to taxpayers while improving the life of lower-income Virginians is at the heart of Allen's philosophy and role in government. During the welfare reforms of 1995 Allen, who was counsel to then-Attorney General Jim Gilmore, worked with state legislators to craft policies that have moved thousands of citizens from welfare to work. While there was some initial criticism of the program, Allen says it was never difficult to endorse because he knew that it was the right thing to do. Today, he is proud of the role he has played in reducing the number of welfare recipients in Virginia by 53 percent.
"When you do what is right for the individual you don't have to look behind. We have liberated those people from the shackles of bondage to the welfare state," he says. "In doing so, they have restored their dignity."
Removing people from the welfare rolls is a goal of Republicans, but it has not often been popular with African-Americans and Democrats who fear for those who are left without the safety net of welfare. Prior to the early 1980s, Allen says, he would have agreed.
But that began to change in 1982, Allen says, while he was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Someone gave me a copy of the Democratic Party Platform and the Republican Party Platform and took the labels off," Allen says. "I agreed with the Republican Platform, and was repulsed by the Democratic Platform. The Republican Party was about individualism and about individual achievement. The Democratic Party was how to divide up a limited pie. You do it on the basis of whether you are a man or a woman, a black or a white."
Simply reading the political platforms of the two parties was a splash of cold water in the face of this nascent conservative. Along the way, Allen also has become a strong supporter of school choice.
Allen home schools his children, and he believes that other African-American families would benefit from the opportunity to place their children in a better educational environment. According to Allen, many young black people are trapped in low-quality schools that do not prepare them for the future. In 1999, Richmond city and Petersburg city secondary schools registered SOL passing rates that were many points lower than in Henrico County and Chesterfield County. In math and history the difference was the greatest with Henrico and Chesterfield students registering passing percentages of 52.19 and 56.28, and 57.98 and 55.13; while Richmond city scored 11.79 and 13.64, and Petersburg city scored 8.04 and 10.69.
"Why should the mom on welfare be relegated to schools that are not passing the Standards of Learning?" Allen says.