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RNC's Priebus Insists Minority Outreach Effort Is Built To Last

Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music gospel choir perform Tuesday at the Republican National Committee's awards lunch at Washington's Howard Theatre.
Frank James
Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music gospel choir perform Tuesday at the Republican National Committee's awards lunch at Washington's Howard Theatre.

Much of politics is about symbols and gestures. And there were plenty of them at the historic Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Under Chairman Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee vows to be much more serious about outreach to African-Americans than ever before.

So, to mark Black History Month, the RNC held its second annual Trailblazer Awards lunch at the renovated theater where the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald once performed in a gentrifying neighborhood that not long ago was solidly "the hood." And there was the berobed Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music rocking the house with a black-church sound not typically associated with the GOP.

It matters that this was the second annual awards lunch — a symbol of the slow and steady attentiveness Priebus intends to show black voters and other minorities. It's part of the GOP's "growth and opportunity" push designed to attract to Republican candidates more than the 6 percent of the black vote Mitt Romney garnered in 2012.

The RNC has also sprinkled outreach personnel throughout the organization, put directors in the field and has bought Black History Month radio ads.

"I believe the old idea of bringing people [like campaign staff and surrogates] in five months before an election isn't workable," Priebus told a few reporters before the lunch. "The only way to influence communities across the country is to identify respected leaders within those communities who are willing to advocate for you in that particular community. ... We have many times moved people around and across the country at the end [of a campaign] making a scrambled case for our candidates, which I don't think is effective."

Something else that might make the RNC outreach efforts ineffective, a reporter suggested to Priebus: the voter ID issue. The chair pointed to Georgia's voter ID experience as proof that voter ID laws aren't about voter suppression.

"Look at Georgia. In the black community, their turnout was higher after the voter ID law. And in fact, by percentage, African-American voters voted at a higher percentage than white voters did in 2012. So it's just not true" that the laws are intended to turn away minority voters, he said.

Then it was off to the lunch, where he assured an integrated audience that included Republican party officials, community leaders, former Florida GOP Rep. Allen West and two Washington Redskins players, that the GOP is in it for the long haul in terms of wooing black voters.

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Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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