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Bush to seek advice on faith-based social programs from black ministers

WASHINGTON (BP)–President-elect Bush, launching the first policy foray since his election, will begin a delicate effort to woo African Americans, who gave him the weakest support a Republican presidential candidate has received in 16 years, according to a report in the Washington Post.

In a meeting in Austin with black ministers from around the country, Bush will return to one of the first themes of his presidential campaign and the bedrock of his “compassionate conservative” message: the use of religious programs to deliver services such as drug treatment and welfare-to-work programs that typically have been handled by government.

Bush is calculating that by reaching out to the African American clergymen, he can find common ground with the black community on such issues as charity tax credits, lighter regulations for “faith-based” social service providers and school vouchers for disadvantaged students. The effort is also something of an end run around the traditional civil rights groups and their leaders, who strongly backed Vice President Gore in the election, and are still angry about what they see as the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida.

“There is some wedge politics that Bush can creatively play,” said Eugene Rivers, who runs the faith-based Ten Point Coalition in Boston and will meet with Bush on Dec. 20. “Democrats always thought they had a proprietary right to black churches. This will highlight some fissures that exist on the liberal-left side.” Rivers said the meeting brings risks for Bush, who may antagonize civil rights leaders. “It is a high-wire act,” Rivers said of Bush’s strategy.

Bush plans to establish an “office of faith-based action” in the White House to remove regulations that prevent religious organizations from participating in federal programs. A top prospect for this job is former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, a top domestic policy adviser to Bush who has also been mentioned as a possible housing secretary; Goldsmith is said to be interested in the new post if it is a Cabinet-level position.

Bush would also create a $500-per-person tax credit for contributions to charities that work with the poor. In addition, he would extend the charitable tax deduction to those who don’t file itemized returns and make other provisions to aid religious-based charities.

As Texas governor, Bush has long been a champion of prisoner rehabilitation, drug treatment and welfare-to-work programs that have a religious component. He was a leading voice for the “charitable choice” provision in the 1996 federal welfare reform law that allowed more non-governmental groups to receive federal funds for social service programs. During the campaign, barely a day went by without Bush calling to “rally the armies of compassion” — using nonprofit and religious groups as an alternative to government programs.

Bush’s hope, and that of some of those who will meet with him in Austin, is that such issues will cause African Americans to give him a second look. It is a belief that issues such as education and economic growth transcend racial politics. That was his strategy during the campaign, but instead Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina and his lack of support for Texas hate crimes legislation became the issues.

“Faith-based programs is an area that can help heal the nation, not divide it,” said Herman Lusk, a Baptist pastor from Philadelphia and the founder of People For People, a religious services organization. Lusk, who spoke at the Republican convention and will participate in Wednesday’s session, said Bush’s programs “go beyond socioeconomic and racial lines.”

Such efforts are likely to aggravate the civil rights orthodoxy. Robert Woodson, a Washington-based black conservative who has championed religious social programs, suggested Bush shouldn’t meet with such leaders. “The mistake Republicans have made in the past is assuming they’ve got to always go through the civil rights door to go to the black community, and standing at that door are the gatekeepers, Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Al Sharpton,” he said. “What Bush has got to do is not be trapped by these gatekeepers” — Woodson called them “faux leaders” — “and go directly to the voters.”

Those who come from the civil rights movement took exception to such a strategy. “Actions speak louder than words,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat. “One of the things African Americans have to do is be smart enough not to let them divide us.” Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., a Tennessee Democrat, said such a “symbolic” meeting wouldn’t be persuasive. “His approach to African Americans is somewhat condescending, as if he’s doing us a favor just giving us an audience,” Ford told the Post.

Democratic Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that Bush’s faith-based initiative brings both promise and risk. Bush will find common ground on such items as the charity tax credit and more freedom and funds for religious-based programs (Gore supported such ideas, too). “There’s a definite logic to involving them,” Wynn said, noting that church-based programs have a “great appeal” to many African Americans. But when Bush gets to other elements of his plan — school vouchers and changes in affirmative action — he will find “substantial resistance.”

Bush and his advisers were stung by a weak showing among black voters, who opposed him by a margin of nine to one; African Americans in Texas turned even more decisively against their governor, giving him only 5 percent support.

Since his election became official last week, Bush has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to black Americans. He promised in his first speech as president-elect to reach out to all races, he spoke with and promised to meet with Jackson, and he made African Americans his first presidential appointments: Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser. Such actions followed a campaign full of appeals to minorities. Bush made a point of going to the NAACP convention in Baltimore earlier in the year to appeal for black support and to distinguish himself from his party’s past.

By turning to black ministers to kick off his faith-based initiative, Bush is taking a different tack that could have the effect of circumventing civil rights leaders.

“The traditional leadership of the civil rights industry has to confront the basic reality that it’s a new regime,” Rivers told the Post. “Some folks have access, other folks do not. That’s the way the game goes.”

Bush officials confirmed Wednesday’s meeting. Attendees are expected to include Rivers, Lusk, the Rev. Kirbyjohn Caldwell of Houston, and Goldsmith. Bush advisers had also sought the participation of the Rev. T.D. Jakes, a Dallas-based minister and broadcaster, but his office said he was on vacation this week.

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