HOUSTON – Mitt Romney’s speech before the nation’s oldest civil rights organization Wednesday was meant as an olive branch to the black community, but his sharp criticisms of President Barack Obama and a vow to repeal his rival’s health care plan drew sustained boos and a chilly reception from the audience of black voters.
Romney’s message was aimed at a larger audience beyond the Houston convention hall – independent and moderate voters particularly. But the tone of his speech still surprised many attendees at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, many of whom had praised him beforehand for making an appearance. As they left the hall, a number of voters said the former Massachusetts governor’s statements energized them to work for Obama’s re-election campaign this year.
Though Romney’s late father George was a forceful advocate for civil rights as governor of Michigan, Romney has campaigned in front of predominantly white audiences for much of this year, with the exception of a visit to a west Philadelphia charter school and the occasional address to a Latino audience. The candidate and his campaign have acknowledged that they have an uphill challenge in wooing black voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama’s candidacy in 2008.
The audience initially welcomed the unofficial Republican nominee with a standing ovation and applauded when he promised to represent “all Americans of every race, creed and sexual orientation,” and noted that “old inequities persist” even a half-century after the civil rights movement.
But murmurs of disagreement rippled through the crowd early on when he argued that his policies would help “families of any color more than the policies and leadership of President Obama.” When he added that he would reduce spending, in part, by eliminating “nonessential, expensive programs” like the president’s health care plan, the audience booed for 15 seconds. And when Romney harshly criticized the president for failing to create jobs and “better educate tomorrow’s workers,” he appeared to have punctured much of the good will that was initially directed his way.
Romney stood quietly on the podium, smiling at the audience as it voiced disapproval. “I do not have a hidden agenda,” he continued. “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.” To a scattering of boos and catcalls, the candidate paused and nodded firmly before carrying on with his speech. “You take a look,” he said.
While a few audience members credited Romney for his bluntness, a number of his listeners suggested that he had intended to be provocative.
“He wasn’t speaking to us,” NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond said after Romney’s speech. “He was speaking to that slice of white America that hasn’t made up its mind about him, and he’s saying ‘Look at me, I’m OK. I can get along with the Negroes. I can say things to them that they don’t like, so I’m not afraid to stand up to them.’ … I think that’s what this is all about, and that’s the reason he came.”
Though Romney’s speech included many of the themes he touches on regularly, he tailored his message to his audience by emphasizing, for example, that the unemployment rate among African-Americans is 14.4 percent, well above the national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent in June.
He also focused what he called “institutionalized inequality” in the nation’s education system and his plans to expand school choice – noting that while black children make up 17 percent of students, “they are 42 percent of the students in our worst-performing schools.” Romney pledged to tie federal school funding more directly to each student.
Alfred Poucette Jr., a retired bus mechanic from Lake Charles, La., said while he appreciated Romney’s focus on education, he was concerned that his plans would divert money from the nation’s public schools. He described Romney’s tone as “condescending.” “I think he came here more to appease us,” he said.
Debra Hutchinson, a state employee from Columbus, Ohio, said she was baffled that Romney did not seem to be there to win votes: “I think he should have stayed home,” she said.
“Instead of coming to tell me what he could do for me, he came to put my president down,” Hutchinson said. “I really wanted him to come and sell himself – maybe there is something that I don’t realize about him – but he didn’t improve anything. He made things worse.”
But Johnnie Crockett of Fort Worth, Texas, who works as a youth adviser to the NAACP, said while some of the things Romney said “were not in good taste,” she thought “he was really trying to reach everybody.”
“He shouldn’t pretend just for our organization,” she said. “He should be who he is.”
Tara Wall, a Romney adviser, argued that the speech was the beginning “of a conversation” and that there was “a lot more applause than there were boos.”
“They appreciate us for showing up,” she told reporters after the speech. “We understand that folks aren’t going to agree with us 100 percent. … But at the end of the day, I think that Gov. Romney’s message was bold. He said what needed to be said, and what he has always said.”
Obama chose not to attend this year’s NAACP convention because of “scheduling” issues, White House aides said Wednesday. They noted that Obama spoke to the convention in 2009 and that his wife, Michelle, addressed the group in 2010. Vice President Joe Biden will address the association today.
“His commitment to the organization and the broader community is easy to see,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said of the president.
Despite the cool reception, Romney’s aides said he plans to continue pressing his case that his economic policies would do more to spur job growth in the black community. During an afternoon appearance with Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business Network, Romney said he had “expected” the crowd’s response to his plan to repeal Obama’s health care plan. “I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs,” he said.
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