Mitt Romney, trying to defeat the first black U.S. president, drew boos at times during a speech to the nation’s oldest civil-rights group as he said his policies would help the economic interests of blacks more than those of the Obama administration.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African American community, you’re looking at him,” Romney said, one of several lines that prompted booing during his 25- minute address today at the national convention of the NAACP in Houston.
Romney, who received a standing ovation from most in the audience at the end of his remarks, was also booed when he said he would repeal the health-care legislation that has become the signature accomplishment of President Barack Obama’s tenure in office.
“If you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African-American families, you would vote for me for president,” the presumptive Republican nominee said.
“I want you to know that if I did not believe that my policies and my leadership would help families of color -- and families of any color -- more than the policies and leadership of President Obama, I wouldn’t be running for president,” said Romney.
He is unlikely to win over the votes of many members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose membership leans Democratic. Still, it would have looked bad for him to turn down the group’s invitation, political observers say.
“Were he not to attend the convention, that would send a negative signal to many swing voters,” Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston, said before the speech. “It’s not a friendly venue for any Republican, but it could send a positive signal to the population at large.”
Four years ago, Senator John McCain, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, told the NAACP that he would expand educational opportunities, partly through vouchers for low-income children to attend private school. He also praised Obama, then a senator from Illinois, for his historic campaign.
Obama isn’t speaking to the group this year; Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to do so. Obama won 95 percent of the African-American vote four years ago, exit polls show.
The president has overwhelming support from black voters, 92 percent to 2 percent, according to a July 1-8 survey by the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. The poll found Obama leading Romney 46 percent to 43 percent among all voters, helped by an almost 2-1 advantage among single women.
Like others in the U.S. economy, African-American voters have been hit hard in recent years. Because they tend to be more dependent on home equity, black household wealth fell by 53 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. The unemployment rate for blacks is 14.4 percent, compared with a national rate of 8.2 percent.
Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for Obama’s re-election campaign, said in a statement after the speech that Romney’s policies would hurt working American families while benefiting the wealthiest.
“At the NAACP today, leaders in the African-American community recognized the devastating impact Mitt Romney’s policies would have on working families,” Ewing said. “He’d gut investments in education, energy, and infrastructure, and raise taxes on the middle class even as he gives $5 trillion in tax cuts weighted towards millionaires and billionaires. He’d put insurance companies back in charge, threatening the health of more than 30 million Americans who will gain coverage because of the Affordable Care Act.”
Romney cited in his speech his experience as governor of Massachusetts to show how he can work across party lines.
“When you are in a state with 11 percent Republican registration, you don’t get there by just talking to Republicans,” he said. “You have to make your case to every single voter. We don’t count anybody out.”
While recognizing the historic nature of Obama’s election, Romney suggested his administration hasn’t lived up to its potential.
“If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, then a chronically bad economy would be equally bad for everyone,” Romney said. “Instead, it’s worse for African Americans in almost every way. The unemployment rate, the duration of unemployment, average income, median family wealth are all worse for the black community. In June, while the overall unemployment rate remained stuck at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate for African-Americans actually went up, from 13.6 percent to 14.4 percent.”
Romney said Obama’s campaign is promoting class warfare.
“The opposition charges that I and people in my party are running for office to help the rich -- nonsense,” he said. “The rich will do just fine whether I’m elected or not. The president wants to make this a campaign about blaming the rich and I want to make this a campaign about helping the middle class in America.”
Romney said he would promote education policies that include funding so low-income children can attend private schools.
He also stressed the importance of families to a group that doesn’t always agree with Obama’s support of gay marriage.
“As president, I will promote strong families - and I will defend traditional marriage,” he said.
Romney pointed to his father, onetime Michigan Governor George Romney, as a role model for his views on civil rights.
“It wasn’t just that my dad helped write the civil rights provision for the Michigan Constitution, though he did,” he said. “It wasn’t just that he helped create Michigan’s first civil rights commission, or that as governor he marched for civil rights in Detroit - though he did those things, too.
“More than these public acts, it was the kind of man he was, and the way he dealt with every person, black or white,” Romney said. “He was a man of the fairest instincts, and a man of faith who knew that every person was a child of God.”
Patricia Kane, 56, a federal worker from Los Angeles who is attending the convention and plans to vote for Obama, said before the speech she was glad Romney came to speak to the gathering.
“It’s pretty bold of him,” she said. “Even though we will vote for Obama, he could be elected and we should hear what he has to say.”