In battleground Georgia, Trump woos Black voters

President Donald Trump speaks Friday at the Cobb Galleria Centre during a campaign rally aimed at wooing Black voters, (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

‘What the hell do you have to lose?’

On the defensive in Georgia, President Donald Trump on Friday unveiled proposals in Atlanta that include promises to secure more lending for Black-owned businesses and a pledge to create a federal Juneteenth holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

Speaking to a cheering crowd of hundreds of Black Republicans, Trump spoke less about the individual policies and issued a broader challenge to Joe Biden’s supporters to question Democratic initiatives as polls show the two are locked in a tight race in Georgia.

“Racial justice begins with Joe Biden’s retirement from public life,” said Trump, who reprised his 2016 appeal to Black voters: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

The president is seeking to undercut Biden’s support among African American voters in a state where Republicans have long dominated by promising to generate millions of new jobs and $500 billion in capital for Black-owned businesses with tax incentives, regulatory changes and private partnerships.

The Trump campaign has focused intensely on Georgia, a state that’s crucial in his bid for reelection. Republicans have carried Georgia in every presidential election since 1996, but Biden’s campaign has forced Republicans to shift resources to the state.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this week showed the race couldn’t be closer in Georgia, pegging each at 47%. And Trump has sent a string of surrogates to the state, including three of his children and several Cabinet officials over the past two weeks.

A supporter of President Trump becomes emotional Friday while listening to speakers during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

And even as Trump prepared to speak at the Cobb Galleria Centre, the White House announced that Vice President Mike Pence would return to Georgia next week to headline a religious conference in another indication of the state’s battleground status.

“Republicans have to worry about Georgia,” said Lisa Babbage, a former congressional candidate who was among the first to arrive at the event. “He’s got to play defense and offense at the same time. He’s got to build the plane and fly it.”

A ‘crisis’

The AJC poll showed only 5% of Black voters said they would support Trump, while 85% back Biden. About 8% of Black voters remain undecided. Eighty-seven percent of Black voters feel that Biden will do a better job of addressing America’s racial disparities.

The former vice president’s campaign blasted Trump’s “failed leadership” during the coronavirus pandemic and the movement for social justice. State Democrats arranged for a truck emblazoned with stark figures about Trump’s record to circle the Galleria complex, where protesters jeered the president and promoted Biden’s campaign.

“Black Georgians won’t let this crisis get worse,” said Nikema Williams, a Democratic congressional candidate and chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.

“We’ll do absolutely everything we can to make sure that we elect Democrats up and down the ballot to stop the Republican assaults on our rights and protect our democracy," Williams said. "Black Georgians know what’s at stake, and we’re ready to send Donald Trump packing.”

Janelle King, a Georgia Republican, speaks Friday during a Blacks for Trump campaign rally at the Cobb Galleria Centre. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Inside the conference center, Black Republicans arrived hours early to demonstrate that Democrats don’t have a lock on African American voters.

“There’s no betrayal at all,” said Fitz Johnson, who is running for a seat on the Cobb County Commission. “Black Americans from the start, back to Abraham Lincoln, were Republicans. We have conservative values.”

He and other Republicans praised the broad outline of Trump’s “platinum” plan, handed to audience members before the president arrived. Among other elements, it would designate the Ku Klux Klan and antifa as terrorist organizations, commemorate Juneteenth and make lynching a federal hate crime.

Trump faced stinging criticism when he scheduled a campaign rally on June 19 — the date known as Juneteenth — amid protests over racial justice in Tulsa, Oklahoma, home to one of the nation’s most violent outbreaks of racist attacks. He delayed the rally rather than hold it on the day honoring the end of slavery in the U.S.

‘Fighting against evil’

Before Trump took the Galleria stage Friday, the campaign played a series of videos touting the president’s support for charter school initiatives, criminal justice measures and new funding for historically Black colleges and universities.

A series of African American candidates, politicians, pastors and activists echoed Trump’s plea to Black voters. Their message: Trump has done more for Black voters in four years than Biden has in decades of elected office.

“Aren’t you tired of being manipulated? Aren’t you tired of being lied to?” said Kelvin King, owner of a construction business and one of Trump’s most prominent Black supporters in Georgia.

“We’ve come through a lot and we can go through a lot," King said. "Right now, we’re not fighting against Donald Trump. He’s right outside. We’re fighting against evil, against factions that want to break up our family.”

During a wide-ranging speech, Trump veered in and out of Georgia political debates.

He credited U.S. Sen. David Perdue for persuading him to endorse Brian Kemp in the 2018 Republican runoff for governor against Casey Cagle. And he urged Republican rivals U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to stay in the free-for-all special election in November.

“I want to congratulate you both for fighting the good fight,” he said, adding that their intense competition will help drive turnout that could boost his campaign.

“Don’t anybody get out,” he said, turning to their conservative supporters. “The only thing I know for sure: They’re all going to vote for me.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp attended a Blacks for Trump campaign rally Friday at the Cobb Galleria Centre. They were wearing masks, but many at the indoor rally did not. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

It was the latest indoor rally staged by Trump, who spoke in a crowded ballroom dotted with many audience members who weren’t wearing masks.

Kemp, who was in the crowd, signed an executive order banning gatherings of more than 50 people to stem the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, but he and other officials have ignored those rules at recent rallies.

Several of the speakers left the event eager to support Trump — and touted what they called a “silent minority" of Black supporters for the president.

”He has given African Americans a fresh start," said Andrea Smith, who attended the rally with her husband, Parett Smith, the pastor of the Vinings Worship Center. “We have been taken for granted for so long by the Democratic Party. But he is building a community of respect.”

Rena-Marie Moore, a 32-year-old real estate broker, said she has been impressed by Trump’s commitment to jobs and opportunity zones, a tax incentive aimed at Black communities.

“The president didn’t get much support in 2016,” Moore said. “But he still did so much for our people. That just shows his character. And he is going to do more.”

Staff writer Ada Wood contributed to this article.

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