How online racist jokes hurt S.C. GOP


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Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

How online racist jokes hurt S.C. GOP
Experts, Democrats see lasting effects; Republicans disagree


State Republican leaders said they do not think online racist jokes by party activists will have a long-term impact on the party’s ability to attract black voters and candidates. But political experts and Democrats disagree.
Twice this week Republican activists have apologized for racist humor.
Wednesday, flanked by members of the NAACP, Columbia GOP activist Rusty DePass apologized for the Facebook remark that likened first lady Michelle Obama’s ancestors to an escaped Riverbanks Zoo gorilla. On Tuesday, Mike Green, an employee with Lexington GOP consulting firm Starboard Communications apologized for an online joke about President Barack Obama taxing aspirin “because it’s white and it works.”

Starboard has been hired by U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, an Oconee Republican who is running for governor.

Despite the apologies, observers said voters likely will remember the incident as part of a longer history of disputes that includes removing the Confederate battle flag from the State House dome.

And voting data show S.C. Republicans have a tougher time attracting black voters than do Republicans nationally.

“I think it makes a strain to invite African-Americans to the Republican Party,” said state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland. “This kind of behavior does not close that gap very much.”

Howard, former chairman of the State House Black Caucus, said he works well with Republicans often, but there are a handful of party members “that are completely out of control.”

DePass issued an apology during a press conference called by the South Carolina NAACP.

“I am truly sorry for any offense I have caused,” DePass said to a small crowd of NAACP supporters who turned out for the noon press event. “My remark was clearly inappropriate, and I apologize for writing it.”
The NAACP had called on DePass to make a clear apology.

DePass said he also had written a letter of apology to Michelle Obama. He declined to make the contents of that letter available to the public. During Wednesday’s press briefing, DePass called his remarks “offensive,” “flippant” and “indefensible.”

“I have embarrassed myself as well as my friends and associates and the members of my family,” DePass said in his prepared comments. “All I can do is ask you to forgive me.”

Howard said the incident has hurt DePass.

“I’ve heard he has done a lot of good things in this state, and it would be a tragedy to be remembered by this event,” said Howard, who Tuesday helped push a legislative resolution to express sympathy to Michelle Obama. The proposal was stopped when Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, objected to suspending House rules to pass the bill without a committee hearing. Five House members joined her dissent.

The Republican bid to block the resolution also did not help the party’s image. Republican leaders acknowledge they have struggled with the race issue and are working to change the perception of their party.

Black Republican candidates had a strong year in 2008, with Charleston Rep. Tim Scott becoming the first black Republican elected to the State House in 100 years. In total, the GOP fielded six black State House candidates. The party also elected York County’s Glenn McCall, a banking executive and veteran, as one of three black Republican national committeemen.

McCall said local efforts in York County, such as the county Republican Party sponsoring a basketball league, were having a positive impact.
“They’re growing the connection,” McCall said. “I think this is happening all over the state.

“I don’t think it has any (lasting impact)” McCall said of DePass’ online posting. “He is a citizen who doesn’t speak for the party. I think people understand that.”

Former party chairman Katon Dawson said the S.C. GOP has found some agreement with black voters on issues — particularly school choice.
But voting data show the S.C. party lags behind the Republican Party nationally, where typically one in 10 black voters chooses Republican candidates.

According to S.C. Election Commission primary data, the only data that breaks out party voting by race, about one in 14.5 nonwhite voters cast ballots for Republicans in 2008 primaries. That’s down from the high-water mark in 2002 — when Democrats had uncontested gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. In 2002, one in 7.5 nonwhite voters voted Republican, up from 1994, when about one in 26 nonwhite voters chose the GOP.

Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard says he sees the discrepancy when he conducts polling. Polled African-Americans frequently say they like GOP candidates, but their votes never appear.

“This is a legacy, I think,” Woodard said. “They just cannot convince African-Americans that they are the party of (President Abraham) Lincoln.”

NAACP state president Lonnie Randolph said he was sure some good would come of the incident, and thanked DePass and others, current and former S.C. GOP leadership, and Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, a Democrat, for speaking out.

“South Carolina’s books on bigotry and hatred have been open since the country was founded,” Randolph said.