Black freshmen GOP lawmakers chart different courses on the issue of race

Congress's two incoming black Republican members have charted different courses so far on the issue of race — though neither seems entirely interested in carrying the mantle of diversity for the GOP.

As the first African-American Republicans in Congress since 2003, Reps.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) find themselves, by default, under a spotlight as they join a conference that has largely lacked diversity.

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The media have tracked both new lawmakers' decisions on whether to join the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), but neither West nor Scott believe their decision on that issue or other matters of race should draw the attention they have.

"If I was a Democrat, would anyone really care?" said West, the Tea Party conservative who defeated Rep. Ron Klein (D) in a competitive Florida district.

Scott downplayed the scrutiny he and West are sure to face over the next two years.

"In the end, my goal is to make a difference for the people that I serve," he said. "I'm used to the questions. It's not a big deal to me at all."

While West elected to join the CBC, Scott said on Wednesday he would not, a move that seems consistent with how he's downplayed race.

Opting not to join, Scott said, is "just consistent with who I've always been."

Said West: "That's his decision. He's his own man. That's the great thing about America."

The last African-American Republican in Congress, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who retired in 2003, also did not become a member of the traditionally Democratic black caucus.

The two new lawmakers arrive on the Hill after a particularly historic time for African-Americans in politics. In addition to President Obama's election as the first black commander in chief, Republicans elected their first black party chairman in Michael Steele.

Steele has arguably been the GOP’s most prominent black voice and has hardly shied away from issues of race. He has said he and Obama have a "slimmer margin" for error because they are black. And when former President Bill Clinton tried to persuade Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), who is black, to drop out of the Florida Senate race to avoid splitting the Democratic vote with independent Charlie Crist, Steele said that sent "a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African-Americans."

West had also made waves in July, when he accused the president of exploiting race after his administration declined prosecution of the New Black Panther Party for allegations of voter intimidation in the 2008 election.

“For an administration that promised a new era in race relations, Obama and the Democrats in Congress have demonstrated that race will continually be exploited for political gain," he said at the time.

After his victory, West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, told The New York Times he didn’t want to run as the “black candidate” or the “military candidate” but rather “as an American candidate.”

Now, West told The Hill, he feels welcome in the CBC — even after it was unclear at first whether he would be able to join.

"The CBC has an agenda. ... Our agenda is about lifting people out of poverty, providing middle-class tax cuts, supporting climate-change legislation," Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the outgoing chairwoman of the CBC, said in October. "Do [black Republicans] embrace this agenda?"

West said he'd spoken with Lee during the freshman orientation in Washington, and that he'd had a "nice conversation" with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Congress’s top-ranking black Democrat.

West said he differed, though, with some of his CBC colleagues on the ethics charges facing Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). West would vote to censure Rangel, while many CBC members pushed for a more lenient punishment for the veteran black lawmaker.

His position on that might be indicative of the approach he’ll take in trying to challenge the "monolithic" voice in the CBC, the reason he has cited for joining the caucus.

Scott, meanwhile, is preparing for the new role he'll assume in January as one of two freshman GOP representatives to House leadership. The position was created by Republicans in their transition process, and both spots have allowed the GOP to add diversity to their largely white and male leadership team. (The other freshman liaison is South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem.)

The fact that the South Carolina congressman-to-be beat the son of onetime segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in the GOP primary made race something of an issue there.

He said there would be plenty of opportunities for him to make common cause with the CBC, despite the fact that he won't be a member.

"In the end the goal is still the same: moving America forward," he explained.