Black conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams has never voted for a Democrat for president. That could change this year with Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s nominee.
"I don’t necessarily like his policies; I don’t like much that he advocates, but for the first time in my life, history thrusts me to really seriously think about it," Williams said. "I can honestly say I have no idea who I’m going to pull that lever for in November. And to me, that’s incredible."
Just as Obama has touched black Democratic voters, he has engendered conflicting emotions among black Republicans. They revel over the possibility of a black president but wrestle with the thought that the Illinois senator doesn’t sit beside them ideologically.
"Among black conservatives," Williams said, "they tell me privately, it would be very hard to vote against him in November."
Perhaps sensing the possibility of such a shift, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has made some efforts to lure black voters. He recently told Essence magazine that he would attend the NAACP’s annual convention next month, and he noted that he recently traveled to Selma, Ala., scene of seminal voting rights protests in the 1960s, and "talked about the need to include ‘forgotten Americans.’"
Still, the Arizona senator has a tall order in winning black votes, no doubt made taller by running against a black opponent. In 2004, blacks chose Democrat John Kerry over President Bush by an 88 percent to 11 percent margin, according to exit polls.
J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman who once was part of the GOP House leadership, said he’s thinking of voting for Obama. Watts said he’s still a Republican, but he criticizes his party for neglecting the black community. Black Republicans, he said, have to concede that while they might not agree with Democrats on issues, at least that party reaches out to them.
"And Obama highlights that even more," Watts said, adding that he expects Obama to take on issues such as poverty and urban policy. "Republicans often seem indifferent to those things."
Likewise, retired Gen. Colin Powell, who became the country’s first black secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said both candidates are qualified and that he will not necessarily vote for the Republican.
"I will vote for the individual I think that brings the best set of tools to the problems of 21st-century America and the 21st-century world regardless of party, regardless of anything else other than the most qualified candidate," Powell said Thursday in Vancouver in comments reported by The Globe and Mail in Toronto.
Writer and actor Joseph C. Phillips got so excited about Obama earlier this year that he started calling himself an "Obamacan" — Obama Republican. Phillips, who appeared on "The Cosby Show" as Denise Huxtable’s husband, Navy Lt. Martin Kendall, said he has wavered since, but he is still thinking about voting for Obama.
"I am wondering if this is the time where we get over the hump, where an Obama victory will finally, at long last, move us beyond some of the old conversations about race," Phillips said. "That possibly, just possibly, this great country can finally be forgiven for its original sin, or find some absolution."
Yet Phillips, author of the book "He Talk Like a White Boy," realizes the irony of voting for a candidate based on race to get beyond race.
"We have to not judge him based on his race, but on his desirability as a political candidate," he said. "And based on that, I have a lot of disagreements with him on a lot of issues. I go back and forth."
Michael Steele, the Republican former lieutenant governor of Maryland who lost a Senate race there in 2006, said he is proud of Obama as a black man, but that "come November, I will do everything in my power to defeat him." Electing Obama, he said, would not automatically solve the woes of the black community.
"I think people who try to put this sort of messianic mantle on Barack’s nomination are a little bit misguided," he said.
John McWhorter, a self-described political moderate who is a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and a New York Sun columnist, said Obama’s Democratic Party victory "proves that while there still is some racism in the United States, there is not enough to matter in any serious manner. This is a watershed moment."
"Obama is probably more to the left than I would prefer on a lot of issues," he adds. "But this issue of getting past race for real is such a wedge issue for me. And he is so intelligent, and I think he would be a perfectly competent president, that I’m for him. I want him to get in because, in a way, it will put me out of a job."
James T. Harris, a Milwaukee radio talk show host and public speaker, said he opposes Obama "with love in my heart."
"We are of the same generation. He’s African American and I’m an American of African descent. We both have lovely wives and beautiful children," Harris said. "Other than that, we’ve got nothing in common. I hope he loses every state."
Moderate Republican Edward Brooke, who blazed his own trail in Massachusetts in 1966 as the first black popularly elected U.S. senator, said he is "extremely proud and confident and joyful" to see Obama ascend. Obama sent Brooke a signed copy of his book, inscribed, "Thank you for paving the way," and Brooke sent his own signed book to Obama, calling the presumed Democratic nominee "a worthy bearer of the torch."
Brooke, who now lives in Florida, won’t say which candidate will get his endorsement, but he does say that race won’t be a factor in his decision.
"This is the most important election in our history," Brooke said. "And with the world in the condition that it is, I think we’ve got to get the best person we can get."
Williams, the commentator, says his 82-year-old mother, who also hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, has already made up her mind.
"She is so proud of Senator Barack Obama, and she has made it clear to all of us that she’s voting for him in November," Williams relates. "That is historic. Every time I call her, she asks, ‘How’s Obama doing?’ They feel as if they are a part of this. Because she said, given the history of this country, she never thought she’d ever live to see this moment."