African American Republicans attend a meeting in Atlanta with RNC chairman Reince Priebus
ATLANTA -- It was a rarely-seen sight: A conference room full of African Americans, all of them participating in a Republican gathering.
The two dozen African Americans were part of a closed-door meeting which Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called a "listening session," with an eye on expanding the party's demographics.
"No longer is going to be the day that Democrats can count votes by color," said former Hall Co. Commissioner Ashley Bell after the meeting. Bell is African American. "The Republican party is going to be out there fighting for every vote in every neighborhood."
The issue is obvious to anybody attending a Republican event in Georgia. The party is overwhelmingly white. The GOP solidly retains power in Georgia; every statewide elected official is Republican.
But Democrats won the White House in 2012 in large part because of their strength with nonwhite voters-- a growing demographic nationally. Some Democrats believe changing demographics will make the party competitive again in Georgia within the next decade.
Priebus says the party can make inroads with African Americans by trying harder, and spending money year-round delivering its message.
"I always think freedom and liberty is a fresh idea. It's a revolutionary idea. I don't think there's anything we need to fix as far as our principles and our policies," Priebus said after the meeting. "I think we need to be disciplined. We need to understand what issues resonate."
Bruce LeVell agrees. The African American chairman of the Gwinnett Co. GOP says the party needs to curb some of its excesses.
"It's hard to attract someone to a party when there's people involved in that party who say mean things," Levell said. The Republican party, he said, needs "more love."
Some Democrats are watching the GOP's effort to broaden its demographics with a measure of amusement.
"This isn't just that the African American community doesn't like how the message is communicated," said Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta). "They understand the policies that Republicans have, and they reject them out of hand."
Priebus calls the GOP effort to attract black voters the "growth and opportunity project." He predicts it could take years to make a difference.