Cory Ruth got his first taste of politics in middle school, when his civics teacher summarized Democratic and Republican Party platforms on the chalk board.
Ruth said he was drawn to the self-determinism and Christian conservatism he saw in the Republicans. Only later did Ruth, who is black, realize many African Americans didn’t share his fondness for the GOP. Still Ruth has stayed true to his beliefs – now as a candidate for the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. And he isn’t the only black candidate who shares those views.
Ruth is one of three African-American Republicans running for the commission in the May 20 primary.
Their candidacies may be long shots. The county is a Democratic stronghold; 64 percent of voters favored Barack Obama in the last presidential election. Ruth faces some well-financed Republican opponents in the race for north Fulton District 3. The other two black Republicans – Earl Cooper, who is running for chairman, and Abraham Watson, running in south Fulton District 6 – have no Republican opposition, but will make their first runs for office against established Democratic politicians.
Democrats don’t seem worried that Republicans will make significant inroads among African Americans, who cast 40 percent of Fulton County ballots in the 2012 general election. A 2012 NAACP poll of black voters in four battleground states found only 14 percent would consider voting for Republicans if they were committed to civil rights.
“I don’t think he’ll win, but I’m going to take him seriously,” said incumbent Commission Chairman John Eaves, one of two Democrats seeking to advance to the general election against Cooper.
But the black Republicans say they’re part of a growing movement that will benefit both parties.
“It’s not just great for the Republican Party,” Ruth said. “It’s great for the African-American community.”
For decades after the Civil War, black Americans embraced the party of Lincoln, the GOP. But their loyalties began to change during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and Democratic support for civil rights sped the transition.
Meanwhile, some Republicans in the 1960s began embracing "states' rights," which to many African Americans hearkened back to Civil War-era justifications for slavery, as part of a "southern strategy" of luring southern whites away from the Democrats. When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly said the Democratic Party had "lost the South for a generation." But the party also gained the overwhelming support of African-American voters, and it has kept it ever since, according to University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.
“Since then, you consistently see 90 percent of the black vote going to Democrats,” Bullock said.
Still, some African-American, such as former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, have continued to play a prominent role in Republican politics. Last year, Tim Scott of South Carolina became the South’s first black Republican senator since Reconstruction.
Other black candidates are running in Republican primaries across the country this year. And white Republicans, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, have been courting African-American voters in an effort to broaden the party’s appeal.
With white voting power diminishing — they cast about 61 percent of votes nationwide in 2012, compared to 78 percent in 1996 — Bullock said Republicans will need to appeal more to minorities if they want to remain competitive politically.
“If Republicans could manage to get a third or 40 percent of the black vote, combined with their very strong showing among white voters, they would be well positioned to continue winning in Georgia and other states,” he said.
Cooper, 50, of Atlanta, is a self-employed marketing consultant. He’ll face either Eaves or incumbent Democratic Commissioner Robb Pitts in the November race for the countywide chairman’s job. He still sees the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln.
“No party’s perfect,” Cooper said. “But I do think there are people in the party that recognize that the needs of the people must be first. We can’t have a country if we can’t have individuals who are succeeding.”
Watson, 29, is a sales and marketing consultant from College Park. He’ll face either Emma Darnell or Bill Edwards – both incumbent Democrats – in the general election race for District 6. Watson also embraces what he sees as Republican virtues.
“It’s not a coincidence that you are seeing more minorities at least identify with the Republican Party – being self-sufficient, putting God first, upholding the Constitution, being the provider of your family,” he said.
Ruth, 36, is an information technology consultant from Buckhead. He faces three challengers – Everett Lee Morris, Bernie Tokarz and Alexander Palacios – in the Republican primary for District 3. No Democrat is running in the race.
Ruth, who served on Mitt Romney’s Georgia campaign steering committee in 2012, believes African-Americans will benefit as more embrace the Republican Party. He said Republicans have had little incentive to court black voters because of their Democratic loyalties. At the same time, he believes Democrats have taken the black vote for granted.
If he wins, Ruth thinks he can help bridge the north vs. south, black vs. white gap that has long existed in Fulton County politics.
“I think we have a very credible chance of winning this race,” he said.
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