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At conservative gala, Trump remarks show challenges in GOP Black voter outreach

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gold and scarlet balloons adorned a Secret Service-guarded entrance that led straight to a bar buzzing with excited reunions, a line of attendees waiting to take photos at a photo wall and a spacious auditorium set up to showcase a unique part of celebrate the conservative movement. downtown Columbia last weekend: Black Republicans.

The Black Conservative Federation honors gala brought together about 500 mostly Black conservative lawmakers, activists, experts and donors for a formal affair. The mood at the Friday night event was boosted by the guest of honor, Donald Trump, whose appearance was part of an effort to show the former president’s affinity with black voters.

“I’m thrilled to be here tonight with Crooked Joe Biden’s absolute worst nightmare: hundreds of proud, black, conservative American patriots,” Trump, who received a ‘Champion of Black America’ award at the event, said to applause of the public.

Trump’s off-the-cuff comments throughout the night, sometimes met with enthusiastic applause and raucous laughter, were roundly condemned by Democrats and black community leaders. Black media ridiculed and mocked the event in real time during the broadcast. The varied reactions to Trump’s comments highlighted the often lonely efforts of black Republican activists and the uphill battle Republicans face to make serious progress among black voters, who still have a very negative view of the Republican Party, according to the recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs. Research poll.

“Black Americans are waking up to the reality that the Democratic Party has taken advantage of them, and the media and the party are terrified,” Black Conservative Federation President Diante Johnson said in a statement Monday, responding to the backlash against the Trump’s speech.

“No amount of media deception or liberal racism will sway the minds of Black voters who will cast their ballots this November for safer streets, better financial well-being, a secure border and a complete rejection of Joe Biden’s disastrous term in office. Johnson said.

Normally the gala is held in Washington, D.C., but this year it was moved to Columbia, S.C., on the eve of the Republican Party’s Republican primaries, where Trump handily dispatched the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley . It was a meaningful shift in location. At a time when Republicans have shown greater interest in reaching communities of color, the dinner served as an opportunity to highlight the tone of the Republican Party to Black voters.

But for attendees, who paid between $100 and $500 for a seat at the closed-door event, the gala also served as a homecoming for a segment of black Republican voters who reject the suggestion that the party and its leaders are racists. The event featured a litany of speeches and prayers from high-profile Black Republicans, with musical performances by a jazz band covering John Legend tunes.

“It’s grown tremendously since we started,” said Melanie Collette, a gala attendee and Republican county commissioner in Cape May, NJ.

Trump, she said, did not take the traditional Republican stance, which was: “We’re not going to get their votes anyway, so let’s not even worry about it.”

“The numbers are going up (with black men). And I hope and pray that many more Black women will come to light and come to the truth,” said Alvin Portee Jr., a Columbia resident who attended the gala wearing a suit and top hat with Abraham’s face Lincoln on it.

“I would say the first Civil War was about black people, and this is our Civil War now,” he said.

In a closing speech, Trump claimed “black people like me” for his numerous criminal charges and mug shots taken as part of the ongoing election interference case in Georgia. Black people can relate to being criminalized like him, Trump said, because of systemic discrimination in the courts.

On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Trump’s comparison of his legal troubles to systemic racism in the criminal justice system “self-serving.”

“It is disgusting and divisive to traffic in racist stereotypes that has the effect of tearing down all Americans,” she said during a news conference on Air Force One. “It is blasphemous to compare the long, painful history of abuse and discrimination that Black Americans face to something completely different.”

Haley, Trump’s last presidential primary rival, called the gala speech “disgusting,” while Cedric Richmond, co-chair of President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign, said the comments were “offensive,” “moronic” and “downright racist.”

And civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton called Trump’s comments “an epitome of an insult to black people” and criticized the evening’s attendees. “If Black Republicans had any dignity, they would denounce this characterization of Black people by Donald Trump,” Sharpton said. Saturday from New York.

“Don’t try to pretend that’s who we are,” he said. ‘That’s who we are. And Trump knows it because he did that to five innocent black young men in this city,” he said, referring to Trump’s characterization of the now-exonerated group of black and Latino teens at the center of one of the most infamous and racially charged controversies in New York City. the eighties.

But during his 90-minute performance, the gala audience often praised and enjoyed the former president’s speech. Black Republican leaders also received applause for their criticism of Democratic policies on diversity and inclusion, the economy, immigration and education.

“Here I stand before you are literally judged, not by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character,” said Rep. Wesley Hunt, referring to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech. “Some people believe different and think that people like us don’t exist in this room. So it’s up to us to tell the truth about what we do.’

The evening’s high energy and passionate rhetoric largely sidestepped the challenges Republicans faced in achieving their goals with Black Americans. Black voters regularly support Democrats by a margin of about 90%, a higher percentage than any other racial demographic group. However, black enthusiasm for President Joe Biden has waned somewhat over the past year.

Only 42% of Black adults said they approve of Biden in a January AP-NORC poll. That’s down from the 56% of Black adults who had a favorable view of Biden in December. Only 25% of black adults had a positive opinion of Trump in December.

Many attendees were optimistic that they could finally gain more attention and influence in both areas.

Vivian Childs, a Republican activist and business owner who traveled from Warner Robins, Georgia, to the event, said she did not object to Trump’s sometimes clumsy attempts to appeal to black voters. She chuckled when asked how the former president promoted his custom metallic gold and red shoes at Sneaker Con, which some surrogates noted as an appeal to Black voters.

“Look how many people he gets to listen. When he does those things, he brings in another group of people who may not have paid him any attention. Now he has their attention,” Childs said. “You have to reach the student where he or she is. And he reaches people exactly where they are.”

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AP writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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Matt Brown is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on social media.

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