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In Trump, black Republicans see plenty to lose

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is trying to widen his appeal — using language as incendiary as the rest of his campaign. Mic Smith/Associated Press

As black conservatives in Massachusetts listened to Donald Trump make his new pitch to minority communities in recent days, some found themselves cringing at his approach.

“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked repeatedly in Ohio, Virginia, and New Hampshire, as he described “war zone” conditions in black and Latino neighborhoods, promised to fix them — and blamed the Democrats.

Black Republicans have long appealed to people of color and those in urban areas — who overwhelmingly vote Democratic — by talking about the economy, access to quality schools, and the disproportionate effect of unemployment on minorities. But Trump, some said, is the messenger who essentially killed the message.

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“It’s too little, too late. The damage has been done,” said Rachel Kemp, the only black woman elected to the Massachusetts GOP State Committee, who says she’s obligated by party rules to support the Republican nominee. “You can’t paint everyone with the same brush. You cannot, at any time, just say: ‘Your lives are so messed up, and it’s because of the Democrats. It’s the government’s fault.’ ”

Kemp said blaming the government runs counter to the values of the Republican Party. And, she said, Trump hasn’t done any significant outreach in the black community, so he’s not speaking from a place of knowledge.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment about the recent criticism. But Dr. Ben Carson, once Trump’s rival, defended Trump’s efforts while introducing the Republican nominee in Manchester, N.H., last week.

“He’s gotten a lot of criticism for talking about portions of our country that aren’t doing well, like the inner cities,” Carson said. “But the fact of the matter is, if they’re not doing well, the whole country is going to have a problem.”

Rachel Kemp, a member of the Massachusetts GOP State Committee, said Donald Trump’s blaming the government runs counter to the values of the party.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File 2014

Trump has made racially charged statements throughout the presidential election. He kicked off his campaign calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” who import crime and drugs. He questioned a Mexican-American judge’s ability to do his job because of his heritage. He called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

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Trump has also rejected invitations to speak before black churches and civil rights groups. He has few surrogates to help carry his message to black communities, where, in critical states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, recent polls show him at 1 percent among African-Americans.

But now Trump is trying to widen his appeal — in language as incendiary as the rest of his campaign.

“You see it all the time, the inner cities, parents walking with their beautiful child, and they get shot. They’re shot. Their child is shot, often killed. Folks, what do you have to lose?” Trump said in New Hampshire Thursday. “Donald Trump will fix it. We’re going to make it better. We’re going to help education. We’re going to straighten out crime. We’re going to create jobs. We’re going to bring our companies back. What the hell do you have to lose? It can’t get any worse than what it is right now.”

And on Saturday Trump took to Twitter, commenting on the death of NBA star Dwyane Wade’s cousin, Nykea Aldridge, who was killed by a stray bullet in Chicago while walking with her infant daughter in a stroller.

“Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” he said in a tweet that initially misspelled the basketball player’s name.

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So far, at least, his pitch has included few policy prescriptions for solving the litany of urban ills, including poverty, flawed schools, subpar housing, and violence, he described in each recent address.

Some black conservatives say Trump’s efforts fall short.

“I don’t see Donald Trump as the savior of our community,” said Dana Gonsal, formerly the Republican chairman of Ward 18, a large swath of Boston anchored by Hyde Park and Mattapan and teeming with residents from Haiti and other Caribbean nations as well as voters of Polish, Italian, and Irish heritage. “I find it quite offensive that Donald Trump has more than rejected the NAACP’s invitation to speak. He’s never visited any of our local black churches. I think that if a man is sincere about making an effort for our community, then he should at least be willing to come and visit us where we are.”

Republicans need to engage the black community more, he said. It’s part of the reason Gonsal, a small-business owner, became a member of the GOP.

“If we’re not in the room, who else will be? Most people think I’m crazy for being a Republican,” he said.

Asked if he planned to vote for Trump, Gonsal said, “Absolutely not. I’m more of a Charlie Baker Republican than I am a Donald Trump Republican.”

There are also black Republicans like Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr., who acknowledge that Trump says outrageous things but still support him — even if others won’t.

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“Maybe it is a little too late, but we’ve got to do something different,” he said. “It’s a bad scene, what’s happening in our country.”

“I don’t see Donald Trump as the savior of our community,” said Dana Gonsal, formerly the Republican chairman in Boston’s Ward 18.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2011

Cousins said he recently took a count of the 18- to 24-year-old inmates in the Essex County Correctional Facility. There were 76, and about 45 percent of them were black and Hispanic, he said. The population of Essex County is composed of 25 percent black and Hispanic residents, according to US Census figures.

“And that’s the same snapshot across this country,” he said. “What we’ve been doing isn’t working. That’s why I at least like to hear Donald Trump talk about it. I do believe that he’s inserted his foot — a couple of times — in his mouth. There’s no doubt about it, but he stands for what he stands for.”

Had Trump — or any Republican presidential candidate — reached out to the black community in meaningful ways at the beginning of the presidential campaign, there was a chance to convince conservative African-Americans voters who were not necessarily registered Republicans to give the GOP a chance, said Leah Wright Rigueur of the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.”

Instead, the Republican Party “nominated the one candidate who was the most alienating of the bunch,” she said. And studies show that if African-Americans feel a candidate is racist or doesn’t care about the black community, regardless of their political leanings, they will not support that candidate, she said.

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Rigueur said Trump’s recent efforts to appeal to minority communities is an attempt at reinvention to broaden his base, though not necessarily to attract black voters.

“Donald Trump is trying to present himself as a compassionate Republican nominee to attract the subset of voters who are interested in him but concerned about someone who is so aggressively, racially divisive,” she said.

“It is an attempt to very much speak to white voters. But if you get some minority voters along for the ride, then, hey, that’s great too.”


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.