Dubya Courts Black Leaders

President Bush is reaching out to representatives of the black community, looking to smooth some of the ruffled feathers that have existed since the earliest days of his administration.

Bush on Tuesday met behind closed doors with 23 black ministers and business leaders in what White House spokesman Scott McClellan described as “an opportunity for the president to discuss his second-term priorities, as well as to listen to issues of interest that these leaders may want to discuss.”

The Rev. Chester Berryhill of the Rising Sun Baptist Church of Hernando, Miss., said AIDS policy, the declining dollar, gang violence, Social Security private accounts and aid to Africa all were topics of the wide-ranging discussion.

“The president was very attentive and took some good notes,” Berryhill said after the hour-long session.

On Wednesday, the president is scheduled to host members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has felt snubbed by the administration in the recent past.

“I believe that it is critically important that we work together with the president on behalf of the American people,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., the caucus chairman. “When we disagree with the president, we will stand up and do so. However, it is my hope that we will find common ground that will benefit all Americans.”

Watt said his group is looking forward to “having future meetings with President Bush.”

The relationship between Bush and the black community has been testy since he first assumed office in January 2001. For example, Bush also has pushed some federal-judge nominees like Charles Pickering of Mississippi who are considered insensitive to black concerns and raised eyebrows when he refused to meet with representatives of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil-rights organization, becoming the first president since Warren Harding to ignore the group during his tenure in the Oval Office.

African-Americans responded by providing the president with only 11 percent of their vote during the 2004 election, a modest improvement over 2000, when he received 9 percent of the black vote.

Bush nonetheless has consistently maintained that he wants to draw more black voters into the Republican Party. During the campaign, the president regularly met with members of the black clergy, many of whom embraced his views on social issues like support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Bush also has reached out to more moderate black organizations, like the Urban League and the Congress of Racial Equality, whose chairman, Roy Innis, attended the Tuesday meeting.

Appearing at the Urban League conference in Detroit last July 23, Bush touted his administration’s efforts in seeing to it that more African-Americans own a house and concluded by saying, “I believe in my heart that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is not complete without the perspective and support and contribution of African-Americans.”

Bush might need help from black groups to push his second-term domestic agenda forward. One of the prime subjects at the Tuesday meeting with religious and business leaders was the president’s desire to reform Social Security by permitting workers to divert a portion of payroll taxes into private accounts _ a proposal that has received a cool reception on Capitol Hill.

McClellan said Tuesday that black families will benefit from the change because they can pass the benefits of the private accounts from one generation to the next.

“African-American males have had a shorter life span than other sectors of America and this will enable them to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors,” McClellan said.

(Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)