CPAC Day 2: Conservatives Still Struggling To Reach Out To African Americans

It’s an easy observation to make at CPAC: there just aren’t a lot of African American conservatives. Walking the halls of this massive event (organizers say up to 10,000 activists are in attendance) you barely see any color in the sea of white faces. The same goes for the candidates on the dais. Though conservatism has embraced a form gender equality when it comes to candidates — some of the biggest names in conservative politics are women, after all — there are very few conservative leaders that check a box other than “white” on their Census forms.

One big exception to that rule is Michael Williams, who took the stage this morning to share some of his considerable knowledge about climate change (or, as he would say, the lack thereof) and the intricacies of energy policy. After he gave his remarks, I caught up with him to talk about his race and, among other things, the state of black conservatism.Williams, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, is preparing a bid for the U.S. Senate should Kay Bailey Hutchison resign after the GOP gubernatorial primary (as she’s promised.)

Williams is a conservative through and through, counting George W. Bush among his close personal friends. He wants less regulation, less taxation and more drilling for oil. He also calls for increased research into alternative energy technologies including wind and solar power.

He has the backing of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the coin of the realm here at CPAC and is counted by DeMint and his followers as one of the few “pure” conservative candidates on the ballot this year (CPAC superstar Marco Rubio in Florida is another of DeMint’s candidates). His speech got a strong response from the crowd here, and Williams seemed to enjoy a warm welcome, like most candidates on the stage.

Williams also happens to be black. I asked him what the conservative movement has to do to see to it that more people who look like him to join the ranks of the right.

“The first thing we have to do is show up,” Williams told me. “I mean, we have to go in and have that conversation with the African American community.”

Williams said African Americans, typically a reliable Democratic constituency, are open to a new political direction. “But what they first want to make sure is that we [conservatives] understand what they believe are their problem the way that they believe it.”

Williams said that conservatives need to do a better job of answering the concerns of black voters, which he said included “the disparity in education levels [with whites], and the lack of job creation, particularly in low-income, predominantly African American and Hispanic communities.”

“We got to spend the time [in minority communities],” he said. “This is not going to be run in and get out.”

I asked him who among the current crop of GOP politicians are doing the best job at making the conservative connection with the black community.

Williams paused, and then smiled. “I’m really not sure,” he said.

“I mean, there are some mayors around that, you know, have done some good things,” he added, “but we’re at the point now where the landscape is so different that we might as well say all of us need to start at square one.”