Republican National Convention: African-Americans Making Things Happen

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Rori Patrise Smith, spokesperson of the RNC, Jona Turner, deputy director,  operations, RNC and Harold Blakely, director, special projects, RNCHigh-profile appointments to the current Republican administration, like those of Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, have put African-Americans on stage again in the GOP. Indeed, the party seems eager to showcase Blacks.

As preparations get under way for the 2004 Republican National Convention, slated for New York City in August as of press time, a number of African-Americans have come into the spotlight. Among them are convention spokesperson Rori Patrise Smith, Jona Turner, the convention?s deputy director for operations, Saleem M. Cheeks, deputy director for transportation, Harold Blakely, director of special projects, and Rachel Lee Davis, president of the Executive Black Republican Council in Amityville, N.Y.

The convention, which will be held at Madison Square Garden from August 30 to September 2, is expected to generate as much as $260 million in revenue for the city and attract nearly 50,000 people. TNJ spoke with the four African-Americans in key organizational roles. Cheeks, who previously worked with New York Gov. George Pataki as a policy analyst, advance coordinator, and assistant appointments officer handling education, labor, economic development and housing affairs, could not be interviewed in time for this article.

Rori Patrise Smith, Spokesperson, RNC
Perhaps the convention?s most visible African-American is Rori Patrice Smith. She came to the Republican Party after several years in the airline industry. The former flight attendant for Delta Air Lines happened to meet then-Florida Secretary of State Kathleen Harris, who later made her outreach coordinator and press secretary for her campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002. Smith had the right political and media background for the job. At Delta she was a television anchor for an intracompany weekly television program. She was also a weather anchor for WAFB-TV, CBS?s affiliate in Baton Rouge, La., and once served as a legislative correspondent for the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.

Now the voice of the 2004 Republican National Convention, Smith says building long-lasting relationships in New York?s various communities is high on the agenda. ?We have begun to reach out to all segments of the New York community. We currently participate in three community events per month in all five boroughs,? says Smith, who holds a B.A. in journalism from Louisiana State University.

Convention staffers work with community programs, such as New York Cares in Brooklyn, where they clean classrooms and libraries, and on Harlem?s east side, where they volunteer at Yorkville Common food pantry, she says. ?One of the major goals of this convention is to establish relationships in the city?s communities that will last a lifetime, not only through this election,? she says.

Jona Turner, Deputy director, operations, RNC
Turner first volunteered for the Republican Party?s national convention in 1996, when it was held in San Diego, Calif. She was hired as deputy director for operations when the convention was held in Philadelphia in 2000. ?I started working with the Republican Party when I was 21 years old. I am now 33 years old. There are many of us [African-Americans in the Republican Party]. It?s just that we aren?t going around saying ?notice me?,? she says.

Turner says she is more than up to the task for the New York convention, although, with a huge crowd expected to attend the event, she anticipates many challenges. For one, Madison Square Garden is a smaller venue than the First Union Center that was used in Philadelphia, she says. ?I am in charge of managing crowd flow, the volunteers, the caterers, florists, signage. It?s like being the mayor of a mini city,? she says.

Harold Blakely, Director, special projects, RNC
Harold Blakely was a fundraiser for George W. Bush when Bush was governor of Texas in 1999. Blakely says he developed such a good relationship with key party members then that he decided he wanted to do more to keep President Bush in office this year. A delegate at the convention in Philadelphia, he is now the liaison between the Republican National Convention and the host committee, helping, among other tasks, to coordinate 7,000 volunteers.

New York City, a primarily Democratic town, is a perfect location for the GOP convention, Blakely says. ?It shows the vote of confidence George W. has for New York City, especially following the events of 9/11,? he says. Blakely, who is a pharmacist in Laurel, Miss., when he?s not working for the Republican Convention, says he first voted Republican in a 1974 local gubernatorial race. Although he personally was attracted to the economic platforms of the Republican Party, he says African-Americans should participate in both political parties. ?We should have people on both sides of the aisle,? he says.

Rachel Lee Davis, President, Executive Black Republican Council, Amityville, N.Y.
While Davis is not on the staff of the 2004 Republican National Convention, she and her 100-plus-member Executive Black Republican Council in Amityville, N.Y., will be involved in all phases of the convention, she says. ?Our members will establish a welcoming committee, set up hospitality rooms and suites, plan special cultural events, participate in convention sessions, as well as attend and voice our opinions when necessary on any and all matters pertaining to a better quality of life for Americans,? says Davis. ?We will make sure to strongly support all areas of economic and political empowerment for African-Americans and to be visible with courage, allegiance, visions and a conviction to act beyond [the convention],? she says.

Davis contends that Blacks increasingly are attracted to the Republican Party, influenced largely by the prominence of Secretary Powell and Condoleezza Rice. ?[President Bush] appointed two top, smart African-Americas to work with him. ?we must continue to reach out all over America to African-Americans,? she says. At the same time, she notes, Republican leaders must be ?more compassionate, unique, and skilled in leadership in order to attract more people into the party. Leadership must be bold, fair, knowledgeable and courageous.?

Davis sees such community outreach as a Republican priority that goes beyond the national convention. Her own organization, she says, is involved in various community programs to benefit the growth and development of African-Americans. ?We focus on economic, educational and political empowerment,? from public awareness programs on voter registration and scholarships for college students to Black history celebrations and providing food to the needy.

When it comes to political party affiliation, African-Americans today generally are perceived to be Democrats. Once, however, Blacks were known for their ties to the Republican Party, ?the party of Lincoln.? They flocked to the GOP because Lincoln, the first Republican to win the White House, signed the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in America. Subsequently, the Republican Party worked to pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery; the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law; and the 15th Amendment, which helped to secure voting rights for African-Americans.