Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney looked into the vast audience at the NAACP convention in Houston Wednesday and announced “If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him.”
“Take a look,” he urged the crowd.
The audience’s collective response appeared to be “We don’t think so.”
Delivering a speech that was billed as an overture to woo black voters, Romney was lustily booed when he vowed to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, if he’s elected to replace the nation’s first black president.
“I’m going to eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find, that includes Obamacare,” Romney said.
As the cascade of boos died down, Romney continued: “If our priority is jobs, and that’s my priority, that’s something I’d change and I’d replace with something that provides the people something they need in health care, which is lower cost, good quality and the capacity to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions, and I’ll put that in place.”
Some NAACP members worried about how the booing of Romney might look on television and elsewhere. Officials of the venerable civil rights organization traditionally school members to be polite towards speakers, even if they disagree with them.
If members don’t like what they’re hearing, then they should not clap, boo, or shout. Silence can deliver just as affective a message as booing, one high-ranking NAACP official said.
But two black mayors, Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Kasim Reed of Atlanta, called the booing over Romney’s health care remarks appropriate.
“He tried to go to the NAACP and then take a position that he knew would impact seven million African-Americans adversely and then he got the response that was completely appropriate,” Reed told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “So he was trying to pull a "Sister Souljah" moment.”
NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond offered an even blunter assessment, saying Romney’s speech was more for white consumption than black.
“He’s saying ‘Look here, I met with the Negroes. I talked to them. I argued my positions. I don’t think they took them, but at least I showed up,’” Bond told reporters.
Tara Wall, who is advising the Romney campaign on black outreach, noted that there was “a lot more applause than there were boos.”
“They thanked us for showing up; they appreciate us for showing up,” Wall said. “I will take that along with the applause over three (rounds of) boos.”
Romney told reporters afterwards that he expected to be booed.
“I am going to give the same message to the NAACP that I give across the country, which is that Obamacare is killing jobs, and if jobs is the priority, then we’re going to have to replace it with something that actually holds down healthcare costs, as opposed to causing more spending for the government and more spending for American families,” he said in an interview on Fox Business Network.
Tony Alexander, political director for the United Food & Commercial Works Union’s San Jose, Calif., local called Romney’s speech “typical.”
“A lot of us are one paycheck away from being poor, out of housing, out of a job and he’s talking about getting rid of health care,” Alexander said. “I’m glad that he came, but I still think he’s out of touch. I was tweeting during the speech that it was going from bad to worse.”
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney established a health care program similar to the one Obama signed into law. But congressional Republicans hate the law so much that they scheduled a vote in the House of Representatives Wednesday to repeal it.
The vote was largely for show because the measure would likely die in the Democratic-controlled Senate. And if it did pass the Senate, Obama would veto it.
Geraldine Alexis, 51, a public school counselor from Arizona, told reporters that Romney was brave for addressing the NAACP but insulting with his message.
“He was speaking to an educated audience and he insulted us with some of the things he said. He was speaking to us as if we were uneducated people.”
Romney tried to connect with his skeptical audience. He joked about addressing the convention ahead of Vice President Joe Biden, who speaks to the NAACP on Thursday.
“I just hope the Obama campaign doesn’t think you’re playing favorites,” he said to laughter.
He told the crowd that he understands the suffering many blacks are enduring in these tough economic times.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, than a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone,” he said. “Instead, it’s worse for African-Americans in almost every way,” he said. “The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, and median family income are all worse in the black community.”
Labor statistics for June showed that the nation’s overall unemployment rate remained at 8.2 percent in June but black unemployment increased from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.
Romney offered no specific immediate solutions. Instead, he spoke about uplifting the economic plight of the black community by reforming the country’s education system.
He called for expanded school choice and a system where federal education funds would be linked to students which would give parents the freedom to send their children to any public or charter school they want.
The former Massachusetts governor blasted Obama for being too close to teachers unions, who he says are hindering education reform efforts.
“You can be a voice of disadvantage public school students, or you can be the protector of special interests like the teachers union, but you can’t be both,” Romney said.
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