Politics & Government

He rejected ‘Send her back’ chant. Can this congressman help GOP with its race problem?

The Rev. Odell Cleveland has a Barack Obama hat and a bobblehead of the first black president on his desk. He supports the Affordable Care Act and voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But Cleveland, the chief administrative officer at Greensboro’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, is also a supporter of Republican Rep. Mark Walker — who most definitely is not a fan of Obama, Clinton or the ACA.

Walker recently attended a panel discussion at the church on the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C, where a white gunman killed nine black parishioners during a Bible study. Walker, a former Baptist pastor, was the only Republican panelist and was peppered with audience questions about gun violence and racist chants at a President Donald Trump rally in Greenville.

“There are certain things I’m never going to agree with him on,” said Cleveland, who endorsed Walker in the past. “He’s willing to stand there and try to explain, give a good answer to tough questions. That’s what the African American community likes about him.

“To expose himself to questions that are not kind to him and answer. That’s the true measure of a man.”

Walker, in his third term in the U.S. House representing a Greensboro-area district and now a member of Republican leadership, wants more of his Republican colleagues to engage in similar ways with communities of color.

Black voters overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Trump, 88-9. The Republican conference in the House has just one African American member, and Rep. Will Hurd of Texas has announced that he will not run for re-election. The caucus has just 13 women, leaving the vast majority of its members as white men.

Of the eight Republicans from North Carolina in the House, seven are white men, including Walker. The eighth is Rep. Virginia Foxx, a white woman. The party’s nominees in special elections in the 3rd district (Greg Murphy) and 9th district (Dan Bishop) are white men.

“It’s important for Republicans to properly address these communities with correct terminology. That comes from genuine relationships, not talking points,” Walker said. “For us to not have walked with these communities or built relationships with these communities for the last generation, it has manifest itself into the numbers we see today.”

‘A problem that they are not facing’

At the GOP state convention in June, Republican leaders said more outreach into communities of color is vital — and those vying for the party’s chairmanship vowed to make changes after the GOP was clobbered in urban parts of the state, like Wake and Mecklenburg counties.

“It’s messaging, but it’s also presence,” said Michael Whatley, who was elected chairman.

Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against communities of color, including minority members of Congress, and the lack of response from Republicans is part of the problem, said former Rep. Mia Love.

“If you’re not standing up against toxic words, if you’re not standing up against division then, to me, you’re perpetuating it. You can’t just turn away from it and pretend that it doesn’t exist,” said Love, a black Republican woman from Utah who lost her re-election bid in 2018.

“The GOP has a problem that they are not facing. They are trying to turn away from problems, especially when it comes to the black community. It’s going to be to their detriment.”

She credited Walker with being one of the few Republicans willing to push back on the “send her back” chants directed at Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota at Trump’s July 17 rally in North Carolina. Omar came to the United States as a Somali refugee as a child and is now a U.S. citizen.

“Though it was brief, I struggled with the “send her back” chant tonight referencing Rep. Omar. Her history, words & actions reveal her great disdain for both America & Israel. That should be our focus and not phrasing that’s painful to our friends in the minority communities,” Walker tweeted the night of the rally, which he attended.

Trump also unleashed a slew of attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, calling his district which includes Baltimore “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Walker said such language is not helpful nor is blaming African Americans for their support of Democratic politicians. He said he does not give the president a pass for his language.

After the deadly mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where the gunman reportedly targeted Hispanics and copied Trump’s language about an “invasion,” Walker sent another tweet taking some of his colleagues to task.

“Six decades ago, conservatives and evangelicals refused to call out white supremacy creating a lack of trust that has lasted more than a generation in our minority communities. As hate expands its voice, I hope we get it right this time!” Walker tweeted, referencing the lack of conservative support for the civil rights movement.

Walker said that Republican policies on the economy, criminal justice reform and opportunity zones, which provide tax incentives for investment in or near low-income areas, have benefited minority communities, including African Americans who have historically low unemployment rates.

“How do we share that info? Do we do it in a condemning, arrogant manner or do we understand from a humility standpoint we have to build lost ground?” Walker said.

“Instead of blaming it on the ‘lamestream media,’ look back a few decades ago when our black brothers and sisters needed us to be able to drink out of the same water fountain or sit down at the same lunch counter, many conservatives, many evangelicals looked the other way. Let’s start with that before we start pointing the finger to everybody else. There’s a reason these alliances were formed with progressives. They showed up to march arm-in-arm with African-American communities. It wasn’t us,” Walker said.

“We have some bridges to build.”

Those bridges, he said, have to be built by earning trust and showing that Republicans care about people and their communities — not simply when politicians are looking for votes.

Similarly, Derek Partee, a black Republican who is running for town council in Huntersville, said many Republicans show up in local churches and at local events at election time.

“You don’t see them until it’s time to run again,” he said. “It’s not that black and brown voters will not vote for Republicans. You have to at least reach out, show up in their neighborhoods. ‘What are your issues?’ You can’t ignore them.”

Walker said he’s showing up. He said he attended a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial breakfast in Greensboro and sat at the last table. He attended Rep. Alma Adams’ HBCU hiring event at the Capitol earlier this year. Walker organized an event to bring together leaders of historically black colleges and universities and Republican lawmakers in 2017.

His district includes part of N.C. A&T University, the nation’s largest HBCU.

Originally from Alabama, Walker, now 50, worked as a pastor at First Baptist Daytona Beach in Florida. While there, he invited the choir from Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college located nearby, to perform at a service. The group had never been invited onto the property.

“They blew the roof off one Sunday morning,” he said. “I want these relationships to be birthed out of their faith, out of their moral conviction. If it’s just about the political arena, if we look at each other as pawns to fulfill our own purpose, it doesn’t work.”

Love maintains regular contact with Walker and considers him a close friend.

“If not Mark, then who? Who else is going to be there?” she said. “I’ve seen him take on some of these issues and be a little bit more outspoken. I really wish the rest of the GOP would do what he is doing.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.