COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
HOUSTON – Mitt Romney’s speech before the nation’s oldest civil rights organization was framed by his campaign as an olive branch to the Black community and a promise to be a president for all people. But his sharp criticisms of President Obama and his vow to repeal Obama’s health care plan drew sustained boos – and some in the audience left more energized to work against his campaign.
Romney, whose father was a forceful advocate for civil rights as governor of Michigan, has campaigned before predominantly White audiences for much of the last year, but he received a standing ovation when he arrived to speak to the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston, where many members praised him for having the courage to show up – even though 95 percent of Black voters supported Obama four years ago.
Polite, then hostile
The NAACP’s reception, at first, was polite and appreciative as Romney argued that he would champion school reform to close the achievement gap between White and minority students, and that his economic policies would help lift Americans from poverty and aid middle-class Americans “of all races.”
There were nods of approval when he noted that few had expected 50 years ago that a Black man would become the nation’s 44th president and asserted that despite the civil rights movement of that era “many barriers remain” and “old inequities persist.”
But murmurs of disagreement ran through crowd when he argued that his policies would help “families of any color more than the policies and leadership of President Obama.”
“I’m going to eliminate every nonessential, expensive program I can find; that includes Obamacare,” Romney said to a long chorus of jeers. A woman in the back of the hall shouted, “You mean Romneycare?” For 15 seconds, Romney stood quietly, smiling at the audience as they voiced their disapproval.
Undaunted, Romney added: “If our priority is jobs – and that’s my priority – that’s something I’d change, and I’d replace it with something that provides the people something they need in health care, which is lower cost, good quality and the capacity to deal with people who have pre-existing conditions…I’ll put that in place.”
Lost the crowd
And the former Massachusetts governor appeared to have lost his crowd when he said the president had failed in his promises to create jobs and “better educate tomorrow’s workers.”
“I have no hidden agenda. If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” Romney said to more boos. He paused and nodded firmly before carrying on with his speech: “Take a look.”
Romney’s audience, in many respects, was not the audience that sat restlessly before him in the Houston convention center, but rather the independent swing voters who are looking for signs that he will be a welcoming and inclusive leader.
His forceful language about the president’s performance and policies, although bold, surprised some members of the audience. Some attendees gave him kudos for not softening his message, but said they had expected a more statesmanlike and less partisan speech.
“I thought he would try to appease us. He didn’t. He insulted us, with some of the things he said,” exclaimed Geraldine Alexis, a 51-year-old public school counselor from Sierra Vista, Ariz.
‘Sister Soulja moment’
Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta said booing was appropriate. Reed said Romney was looking for a “Sister Soulja moment,” referring to then-Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s criticism of racially tinged comments by the rapper during the 1992 presidential campaign, a sign that he could stand up to his political base.
“It makes him look like he’s having character and integrity when he really wasn’t speaking to the NAACP audience at all,” Reed said. “He’s aware what’s going on in Congress today, and those are the individuals he was speaking to.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted Wednesday to repeal the health care law, a symbolic move that faces certain death in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
‘Met with the Negroes’
NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond said Romney’s remarks were aimed more at White voters than an African-American audience.
“He’s saying, ‘Look here, I met with the Negroes. I talked to them. I argued my positions. I don’t think they took them, but at least I showed up,’” Bond said.
Hilary Shelton, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said Romney didn’t change any minds but “he opened minds to ask harder questions.”
“He recognized many of the challenges of our community,” he said. “The real concern is, what are the solutions? We don’t elect people just because they understand we have a problem. We’re looking for your recommendations, your solutions for those problems, solutions that recognize those disparities.”
Tara Wall, who is handling outreach to African-Americans for the campaign, noted that there was “a lot more applause than there were boos.”
“They thanked us for showing up; they appreciate us for showing up. I will take that along with the applause over three (rounds of) boos,” she said.
William Douglas and David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers and Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times (MCT) contributed to this report.