YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—Telly Lovelace is a good brotha, but the Republican Party has set him up to fail.
It’s not him. There is no doubt in my mind that he loves black people and wants our community to thrive. He wants us to have political options. He truly believes there is a place in the GOP for black people.
That’s why he took the toughest job the party could ever assign—national director of African-American initiatives and media. In other words, persuading black folk to vote Republican. Which, this year, means persuading them to vote for Donald Trump.
And it’s why Lovelace showed up here, a few weeks before the Republican National Convention, to listen to a small group of black people, some interested in the party and some already staunch Republicans.
One person after another expressed frustration with the Democratic Party. Lovelace just listened attentively.
Corrine Sanderson, a black woman running for the state House out of Youngstown, told the group that she is a triple minority: She’s black, a woman, and a Republican.
“I’m the only Republican in my family,” she said.
During a discussion of the Second Amendment, Lovelace mentioned the sit-in on the House floor that had been organized by Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights hero and Democrat, earlier that week. Lovelace asked what people thought about it.
“Demagoguery,” one person responded. “That was their political purpose.”
Another called it a “foolish stunt.”
The organizers of the gathering were local Christian leaders, a key group Lovelace wants to target during his outreach. Thing is, most black people don’t agree with the small group who gathered under the tent that afternoon.
More than 82% of black Americans support a federal database on gun sales, and 56% believe gun ownership puts people’s safety at risk, according to the Pew Research Center.
This is what Lovelace is up against. Most black Americans have a cultural relationship with Christianity, for example, but that has not historically translated into their voting Republican.
That is why I think Lovelace is set up to fail: Republicans are ideologically out of step with most black voters. There’s a reason—there are many reasons—they overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Only 5% of black Americans identify as Republican.
But Lovelace doesn’t agree with my assessment of his efforts. To him, black folk simply don’t know the Republican Party.
“A lot of African Americans just don’t know,” he told me in our car ride from Youngstown. “‘What is a black Republican?’ I know there have been several times, I'm in different places, I’m in the hood somewhere in the black community, what have you, people are talking, and I tell them I'm a black Republican, and they're like, ‘Wow. I didn't know you guys really existed,’ outside of Clarence Thomas, or the black senator or congressman that they see every once in awhile on TV.”
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Lovelace registered with the Republican Party as soon as he turned 18. A native of Washington, D.C., he said his parents, whom he described as Reagan Democrats, informed his conservative political views.
From about age 13, he said, he felt he would grow into a Republican.
“It seemed Republicans were more for freedom, just for more independence and less reliance on government,” he told me. “I know everyone, at some point, there's a time when you may need government to assist you, and that's the role of government. Government should be there: military, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, et cetera. It seemed like the Democrats rely more on government. They want to keep pushing it.”
Lovelace worked for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and advised him on how to respond to uprisings in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray. He worked in communications for two members of the House and a senator, Jim Talent of Missouri.
But he said he takes the most pride in working on Star Parker’s 2010 House campaign, in California, for which he said he helped raise $2 million in just eight months. Parker lost, but Lovelace said he is proud that the candidate finished without any debt.
When he was hired by the RNC, in April, the party chairman, Reince Priebus, called engaging with black voters a “top priority.” “I’m confident his experience will help us build on our commitment to cultivate relationships and trust with Black media and Black communities," Priebus said of Lovelace.
A Democratic Party spokeswoman said simply, “God bless Telly Lovelace on his new role.”
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This is among the worst times in American political history for the GOP to recruit black people. Black turnout in the past two presidential elections was the highest it has ever been. The country’s first black president is leaving office to stratospheric approval ratings among black voters.
And most black people consider Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee this year, a racist. His treatment of black protesters at his rallies and open disdain for the Black Lives Matter movement is evidence enough. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump is polling at 0% with black voters.
But when I asked Lovelace whether he believes Trump’s candidacy makes his job harder, he said no. In fact, he said he doesn’t even think Trump is racist.
“If I thought he was a racist, I wouldn't be at the RNC,” he told me. “I think there are some people who are a little older, and they have their way of talking to people, addressing people and so forth. They’re just kind of stuck in their ways. He's calling one person ‘my African American,’ ‘the blacks,’ that's the way he talks. Again, it's that tone.”
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Our next meeting took us to a Gimmi Java Coffee, a black-owned shop in Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland. Brian Barnes, co-director of African-American initiatives for the Ohio Republican Party, was leading a session on how Republicans can recruit more black people into their ranks. Most people in attendance were registered Republicans and black.
Again, Lovelace sat in the back and listened. That’s his style. He’ll ask questions for clarity, but, generally, he just lets everyone one know he is there to help.
The crowd was mostly older black women, a demographic that Democrats have on lock, and who supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders this primary season in huge numbers. I spoke with some of them about Trump and got mixed responses.
LaVerne Jones Gore said she’s voting for him and pushed back against my assertions that he is racist.
“Why do you think that?” she asked me. “Why?”
Deonna Taylor, however, said Trump’s racial rhetoric makes her feel very uncomfortable, and she’s not sure how she will vote in November.
“I’m on the fence now,” Taylor told me. “This close to the election, I’m usually clear about who I want to vote for.”
Taylor was a lifetime Democrat until 2010, when she switched to the GOP. Still, in 2012, she voted for President Obama. I asked another black Republican woman in the room whether she voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“Who I vote for is my own personal business, but I’ll you one thing: I voted on the right side of history,” she told me.
This was not a good sign.
Leah Wright Rigueur, an expert on black Republican politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, told me that black Republican women are more likely to go against their party and vote Democratic than any other racial group.
She said that while Trump may have black women like Omarosa Manigault, the Trump adviser and former "Apprentice" contestant, and spokeswoman Katrina Pierson advocating for him, most of their views are out of step with what most black women believe.
“It’s definitely important for Telly to talk to black women, but what motivates them is having a sense that the Republican Party either cares or does not care about their community,” Rigueur said. “This is an incredibly difficult year to motivate for the Republican Party when you have a figure like Donald Trump as the nominee.”
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The following Sunday, Lovelace sat in a 10 a.m. Bible study class with pastor John A. Twymon at Blessed Hope Missionary Baptist Church, in Cleveland. After his service, he told Lovelace that he considers himself an independent, but that most of his congregation would consider themselves Democrats.
While he does agree with Republicans on socially conservative issues like reproductive rights, and marriage, which he feels should be between a man and a woman, he has problems with how the party views welfare.
“A lot of times, people knock welfare, but welfare is a biblical principle,” Twymon said. “The Bible talks about the fact that when they had a field, they were supposed to section off the corners of the field for the poor. And the poor could come in and gather their own corn. It was sectioned off for them purposefully because they could not afford to eat.
“So when I see policies coming down taking things away from people, well, I don’t know where they live at," he went on. "I live around here, where people are not just lazy. They’re not just not trying to find jobs. They can’t get jobs.”
He talked about how young men in his congregation have felonies for selling weed, yet in certain states it’s being sold legally almost exclusively by white people.
And then there is Trump. “Most of my congregation, they don’t know Republicans. You know who they know? They know your presidential nominee,” he said.
“And if that is what they know and if that is the face of what you are about, you’ll never succeed in this community because that face appears to be a racist face. The face appears to be a bigoted face. The face appears to have no concern for our community.”
We went down to the 11 a.m. main service, where his father, pastor Johnny F. Twymon, preached. At the beginning of the service, two Democrats running for judgeships in the city gave stump speeches.
Barnes, the Ohio Republican Party official, and Lovelace followed them and gave theirs. Barnes thanked the church for their support of a water drive he helped coordinate. Lovelace gave a few remarks about who he was and how the Republican Party is interested in their community. It was not especially inspiring.
I walked over to an older black woman sitting in the back and asked her whether she would consider voting for a Republican. She gave me a long side-eye.
“I’m straight Democrat,” she told me. “I’m not gonna sit in church and lie to you.”
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As Lovelace sees it, Democrats have failed black people.
He points to several examples of how cities run by Democrats have the most abusive police departments. Economically, black people trail their fellow white citizens in essentially every category.
Democrats aren’t doing nearly enough to reverse this reality, he feels. He believes that if more black people met black Republicans like him, face to face, that would ease their reservations about registering with the party.
Lovelace doesn’t put a number on how many black people he believes will vote Republican this year. Trump, however, thinks he can get 20%. I asked Lovelace whether that was realistic.
Mitt Romney, I reminded him, got 6% in 2012. (John McCain got 4% in 2008, and George W. Bush got 11% in 2004.)
Lovelace argued 20% is doable.
“The reason why I think it's still possible to achieve Mr. Trump's goal, or at least double what we did in 2012, is because a lot of African Americans, a lot of blacks, just don't trust Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Gianno Caldwell, a Republican strategist, told me it is important for to have black people in both parties advocating for black voters.
“Who’s giving the best deal is the real question,” Caldwell told me, as we walked down East 4th Street in the heart of downtown Cleveland. “Even when it comes to Trump and Hillary, Who is giving the best deal? … Black lives don’t matter to Hillary Clinton, it’s black votes that matter. It’s problematic on many levels for us to believe her because she has a reputation and history of being a liar.”
Lovelace isn’t focusing on presidential politics alone. He believes the party needs to invest in black candidates for local office. Those black candidates have a better connection with black communities than people in Washington.
If the GOP wants more black people to join the party, he said, it needs to send more black people into those communities to do the recruiting.
“In the past, when the Republican Party has wanted to do African American engagement, it’s been white people from rural and suburban America basically saying, ‘This is how you need to go do black outreach. As opposed to relying on those who are in the African American community, who have the relationships. It's always pretty much been white Republicans telling the black Republicans, ‘This is how you need to do it,’ when it should be the other way around.”
But his views are out of step with the culture of his party. For example, he feels the government should not have a say in who can get married, and he believes in a woman’s right to an abortion.
And he is very much for Black Lives Matter movement. He told me about the times he has been pulled over and the three or four back-up patrol cars that come minutes later. Like any black person in America, he has his own fears of police and knows his job title won’t protect him from abuse.
“I'm an African American male. Even if I were in a suit, even if I were in a hoodie, they still see me as a black man,” he told me. “They don't see me as a black Republican.”
When you speak with Lovelace, you see a man who loves his party but loves his community even more. The only reason he accepted this job is because he truly believes the Republican Party can offer black people something—even though it likely won’t be policies most of them favor.
I jokingly called him the “Mission Impossible Negro.” He laughed.
He told me his black Democratic friends called him to congratulate him on his new role when it was announced in April. As Lovelace sees it, he and his Democratic colleagues aren’t foes. They are in this for the betterment of their people.
That is why he is doing this work.
“At the end of the day we're all African Americans first,” he said. We're all black. Regardless of Democrat, Republican, whatever the label is. We are all African American first. As long as they understand, even though we're on the Republican side, we want to do what is best for our community and for our people. That is the number one goal.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is National Political Correspondent for Fusion. You can follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.