Black conservative leaders said they were surprised by the frankness on both sides in a meeting yesterday with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican National Committee Chairman Mark Racicot and Deputy National Chairman Jack Oliver.
"It was extraordinary," said Bob Brown, chairman and chief executive officer of a North Carolina public relations firm and a former domestic policy adviser in the Nixon White House. "The candor between black leaders and top Republicans was like something I haven't seen before — and I've been to a lot of meetings."
Mr. Brown added, "We got past the niceties real quickly."
Each side said the other had a responsibility to carry through on plans to boost the Republican Party among a new generation of middle-class black Americans who they say share conservative political values but have yet to break their decades-long loyalty to the Democratic Party.
"We weren't there just to shoot the breeze but to give advice and instruction," said the Rev. Glenn Plummer, chairman and chief executive officer of the National Religious Broadcasters Association. "What was surprising and encouraging to me — they received it and wanted to act on it."
Mr. Frist and Mr. Racicot said the group, brought together by black conservative writer and TV talk-show host Armstrong Williams, should meet again within a month.
"We talked about what we as a party could do concretely to become more fully engaged and completely relevant in the lives of African Americans across the country," Mr. Racicot said after the closed meeting at the party's national headquarters on Capitol Hill that lasted for more than two hours. "It's not that we haven't tried hard over the last two years to do that, but we have miles to go."
Several black leaders who attended yesterday's meeting later characterized Mr. Frist, a Tennessee heart surgeon who entered politics at the top by getting elected to the Senate, as "naive" about racial issues but eager to learn.
The white Republican leaders and black conservatives agreed their goal was to find and hire more black staff for Republicans in Congress, recruit more black Republican candidates of quality, to make the Republican Party more hospitable toward blacks, and to boost black voter turnout for Republican candidates in 2004.
At Mr. Frist's behest, the black business, religious and political leaders agreed to be an employment service to recommend black conservatives for jobs in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill. Both sides agreed to meet again within a month to review progress and come up with more ideas.
Since the time the late Lee Atwater was national chairman in 1989, Republicans have claimed their party is a big tent, but a sea of white faces still greets anyone attending a national or state Republican gathering, despite repeated party "outreach" efforts, leading to considerable skepticism in both parties about Republican outreach.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe yesterday said the reason Republican leaders met with black conservatives was to try "to repair their image with minorities." Although he applauded Republicans "for trying to address their party's pervasive problems with minority outreach, holding a two-hour meeting is hardly going to solve the long-standing problem."
Mr. Williams said the measure of success of the meeting yesterday and another to be hosted by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas on Jan. 28 will be the extent to which "you see the party apparatus change from the grass roots to the state and national levels and to staffs on the House and Senate sides, where you will see more black Republicans."
The Rev. A.R. Barnard Sr., head of the 20,000-member nondenominational Christian Culture Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said his congregation is made up largely of young black middle-class conservatives who are open to recruitment by the GOP in ways he discussed with Mr. Racicot and Mr. Frist.
Asked if he thought anything concrete would come of this initial meeting, Mr. Williams said, "Only time will tell. The good news is that Senator Frist has asked us to go out and find people for him" for congressional staff positions and to run as Republicans at all levels of government.