"[We] must in some way, some form, recruit blacks and other minorities," said the Rev. O'Neal Dozier, the African-American pastor of Worldwide Christian Center in Pompano Beach and a Republican Party activist. "We cannot win with the white people alone. We have to reach out and we have to pull in the blacks."
A Census Bureau analysis of voter participation released last month found that in 2012, for the first time in American history, a higher percentage of blacks voted than whites.
At recent gatherings in Boca Raton and Deerfield Beach, Republicans from South Florida and around the country commiserated and strategized as they tried to figure out whether they need cosmetic changes — or a fundamental overhaul.
Republicans must decide if they need to emphasize economics or social issues, decide if existing policy priorities are the right approach or if new ideas are needed, and come up with a way to attract new voters to the party without alienating their current supporters.
"The party needs to really spend time in very uncomfortable positions, in uncomfortable spaces," said Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former Maryland lieutenant governor, the first African-American in either of those posts. He's currently a political analyst for the liberal cable channel MSNBC.
Any efforts are likely to meet deep skepticism. "They're going to have to do a lot more than fly the flag in the community," state Rep. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale, the Democratic Party leader in the Florida House. "It's difficult for you to be impressive to a community when you're not embracing their needs. There's got to be a reason why people want to associate with you."
"I don't really think that it will work," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. "People of color, they have enough sense to know why they're doing this. It's so they can win elections."
Miles away from the Embassy Suites ballroom in Boca Raton, where a racially diverse crowd dined on a three-course meal and sipped iced tea, Robert Williams offered a different perspective from the historically black northwest section of Fort Lauderdale.
"The only time they really show up is when they want something," Williams said of Republican politicians. "Right now, I can see in my community what they've offered me and what they've given us are two different things."
Like 83 percent of black registered voters in South Florida, Williams, 50, is a Democrat. In Broward and Palm Beach counties, just 3 percent of black voters are registered Republicans and 17 percent are independent/no party affiliation voters. Among all voters, South Florida is 50 percent Democratic, 26 percent Republican and 24 percent independent/no party affiliation.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Miramar Democrat whose district includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties and spent decades as a civil rights leader before his 1992 election to Congress, said the Republican talk isn't likely to bear fruit.
"The needle is not going to move in any substantial way anywhere in America for Republicans," he said. "They have to change their ways."
Former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was one of the nation's few black Republican statewide elected officials until she resigned in March, said Hastings is right. Waiting until election season to show up simply doesn't work.
Past efforts have been sporadic, short-lived and haven't engaged in what she called "real issues impacting black families," Carroll said. Republicans have to commit to spending years talking to black voters about the economy, education and crime even though, she said, the efforts won't produce results in time for the 2014 Florida governor's race or 2016 presidential contest.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, who represented Broward and Palm Beach counties in 2011 and 2012 and was Florida's first black Republican in Congress since Reconstruction, said economic policy is key. The first event sponsored by his new foundation was a forum in Deerfield Beach on ways to develop small businesses in minority communities.
Thurston said black voters are in sync with Democratic priorities on education funding and expanding health care. And Hastings scoffed at a Republican idea that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It doesn't work, he said, "when you don't have a boot or when your boot is leaking."
Larry Wright, a political science professor at Florida A&M University, said some people think Republicans can make inroads by emphasizing conservative positions on other issues.
But that can be perilous. Polling shows less support among black voters for gay marriage than among the general population, but that runs counter to efforts by some Republican leaders to moderate the party's positions on social issues to lure younger voters who aren't as conservative as older voters.
Steele and Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University, said Republicans need to avoid political blunders, like the efforts by Republican-controlled state governments, including Florida to tighten voting rules before the 2012 election. Those moves were widely seen in the African-American community as an effort to disenfranchise voters.
The result, Wright said, was a backlash from black voters who turned out en masse, and voted Democratic, largely to support President Barack Obama's re-election, but also to show they couldn't be stopped from voting.
Steele said Republicans are doomed if they don't find new supporters from a range of demographic groups.
"Not just African-Americans, all voters. How many demographics did we win in 2012? One," he said. Republicans lost the vote of "every class of citizen except old white men. Nothing against old white men, but America's more than that."
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