Ghost Of Mitt Romney Haunts Republican Outreach In East New York

Reince Priebus tries to woo black voters with a "listening session" at a black Brooklyn mega-church. At the strip mall across the street, shoppers are still talking about that rich, white guy who ran for president.

Inside a Christian mega-church deep in the heart of Brooklyn, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus used a Monday afternoon press conference to preach inclusion, outreach, and political redemption for his struggling party.

But too many of the people in the predominantly black, low-income neighborhood surrounding the church, the Republican Party was not yet done atoning for its 2012 sins.

Priebus came to the Christian Cultural Center — an evangelical church in East New York that boasts 29,000 members, and is headed by prominent black Republican Rev. A.R. Bernard — to participate in what a press release called an "African-American engagement and listening session." It was the latest stop in a national tour for the RNC chief, ostensibly intended to gather advice before the party releases its official campaign post-mortem next week.

Complimenting the church as a "beautiful, successful place of renewal and revival," Priebus quipped, "We're hoping to get a little bit of that at the Republican National Committee."

To pull off a Republican resurrection, Priebus said, the party would have to work hard to "make the sale" to African-American voters, who left the Republican Party in large amid the civil rights battles of the 1960s, and who President Barack Obama won with 93 percent in 2012.

"Today is about listening and today is a start. I'm not coming here with all of the answers but I am coming here with an open heart and an open mind and a serious drive," Priebus told reporters before heading into a conference room with 20 black Republican activists for a closed-door "listening session."

As the press was ushered out of the meeting, Priebus was heard telling the group, "The question we really want to hone in on is... What are the things you believe the Democrats are doing really well?"

Meanwhile, at a strip mall across the street from the church, shoppers sounded common refrains as they talked politics with BuzzFeed. Each of the half-dozen people interviewed said they voted for Obama in November. They all complained, unprompted, that Republicans only cared about rich people. None of them had heard of Reince Priebus — but they had all heard of Mitt Romney.

And for most of them, Romney's candidacy was reason enough to steer clear of the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.

"You could tell from those private interviews," said Michael Watkins, a New York City Transit worker, referring to Romney's leaked "47 percent" tape. "He only cared about rich, white people. And there were even some white people who didn't like what he was saying there... We're not rich like them. We weren't born with a golden spoon in our mouths."

Watkins is hardly orthodox in his liberal beliefs. He praised Chris Christie and Michael Bloomberg for their business-friendly pragmatism, cited deficit reduction as a high priority, and condemned politicians who say, "you can't pray in schools, that's illegal, but here's some condoms."

But he has come to see the GOP as the party of Romney, and he said it would be hard for any Republican — aside from Christie, who impressed him with his aisle-crossing friendship with Obama during Sandy — to win his vote.

"They don't ever come here because they don't think a lot of blacks vote," he speculated. "But even if they did, they could talk and say whatever they want, but believing them? I don't know, that's tough."

Patrice Stafford, a travel consultant in Brooklyn, was offended by Romney's failure to pay tribute to the troops during his convention speech. She has two military veterans in her family, and felt the Republican nominee has little appreciation for their service, or for the economic hardships they face.

"He was too business-like. He was just talking to the executives in the board rooms," she said of Romney.

Stafford said she voted for a Republican when she lived in Oklahoma City and would be willing to do so again, but only if the candidate was nothing like Romney.

"He's got to talk to the line cooks, not the rich folks," she said.

Back in the church, Preibus acknowledged the damage Romney's "47 percent" remarks did to the party's minority outreach.

"I would say that Gov. Romney's unscripted moments weren't helpful," he said, answering a reporter's question about the incident.

Priebus said that's why he had come to the church; to make inroads into the community, to hear them out, and to "fix these demographic problems" in the party.

But the church itself is not without its perception problems in the neighborhood.

Watkins, who has attended the church before, said he's heard rumors that members were forced to produce W-2s to prove they were paying enough tithing. Another woman complained that the services were "too comercial."

And Irmise Theodore, a home health aide who attends the church every other weeks, said she wasn't aware that the church was founded by a conservative.

Theodore was the most ardent Democrat interviewed Monday afternoon. Of Romney, she said, "I don't think he's racist, but he doesn't like black people very much." And she said, "Republicans are never going to be on behalf of black people, because they think we're all poor and don't contribute."

Informed that her pastor was a self-identified Republican, and was currently meeting with the head of the RNC, she was at first incredulous.

"Bernard?" she asked. "Really? I can't believe it."

Then, getting into her minivan, she said, "I guess I can't go there anymore."

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