As many local people who read this column are aware, the person who writes it currently serves as 2nd Vice Chairman of the Republican Party in Jefferson County, Tennessee. It was in that capacity that we were present on Tuesday night at the meeting of the County Executive Committee, and when we got around to “Announcements” on the agenda-near the conclusion of the evening’s business-and we allowed visitors to say a few words if they pleased. The most obviously prominent visitor present was Dr. Jean Howard Hill, who is once again declared to run for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District in the Republican Primary against the incumbent, Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, who, like Hill, hails from Chattanooga.
Thanks to Dr. Hill’s kind hospitality, this writer did manage to procure a copy of her book and has begun to trudge through it. So far, it can be said that we agree with some of the assertions she has made about the State of the party, while respectfully disagreeing with some others. Her statements about the heritage of the Republican Party are quite correct, but it must be remembered when considering that reality that we neither live during Reconstruction or the 1950’s, and the political landscape of this country has changed dramatically since the Republican Party was founded in a Wisconsin schoolhouse in 1854-so too has the landscape and agenda of the party.
However, there is one area where the informed listener would be hard-pressed to disagree with Dr. Hill at all, and it is the reality that we, as a party, still manage to make presumptions about African Americans when we might see them at our gatherings or events, and we have come to presume that “black” means “Democrat” by default. Some of you may deny that assertion, but in many cases, it is a reality-and this writer is as guilty as anyone else of assuming that the black folks at political gatherings are all Democrats and that we don’t need to reach out to them, and it won’t do us any good. We can talk about how we’ve attempted to “recruit” African Americans-and many good faith efforts have been made over the years to get blacks and other so-called “minorities” into the Republican Party in an active way, but we have to remember that most people on the street-black or white-are not like those of us who are interested in politics in a deep way-they aren’t “political people,” they don’t think about politics every day as this writer might do. However, those are the people-in the black community and elsewhere-who Republicans need to push the button for the candidate with the (R) at General Election time. We aren’t doing a good job of getting the black vote because many blacks still look at the GOP and they don’t see leadership there, so they vote for the party where blacks are put into leadership positions, even if they know it is because those positions are there because districts were drawn to insure an outcome less than genuine, or party positions were filled as a matter of patronage in the way that Democrats tend to do. It is a system built on a house of cards, but the black man or woman on the street looks at it and sees that however phony it obviously is, at least there are some black folks who have influence.
There are some people who think Dr. Hill is really just a Democrat running as a Republican, but this writer does not share that view. She obviously is a Republican because she chooses to be one, and anyone who has heard her speak would know this. She admits that she used to be a Democrat-so did Ronald Reagan, and we see how he turned out when he ran for office as a Republican. However, Jean Howard Hill needs some real advice as a candidate for her activism, and the next part of this article may contain some things that she doesn’t want to consider, but that this writer also believes are just as true as what we just said about the relationship of many African Americans to the GOP. Firstly, Dr. Hill is a powerful speaker who can motivate an audience and get our attention. Her words would make any intelligent person want to consider her as a candidate, and her passion is real and authentic-but she is one of the most winded political speakers we have ever heard. When we decided to give her the floor Tuesday, we expected a short address of five to ten minutes, and we got three-quarters of an hour. Nothing will turn off a group of Republicans assembled to do what is often referred to as the sausage-making of politics more than a guest who is given the floor (something we do as a courtesy, our rules don’t require it) and who takes the floor and puts it in a full Nelson. Dr. Hill was right about the friendly reception she received in Jefferson County last year, and some of us in positions of party leadership here rather like her personally and want her to keep coming back (provided that any part of this county actually remains in the 3rd Congressional District), but she has to use common sense when we give her an opportunity to speak-we hate having to put formal time limits on the gallery, but especially when a Republican primary candidate has gone to the trouble of coming to our rural county for a political meeting that is very important but rarely makes the news.
Perhaps most importantly, Jean Howard Hill has to be realistic about her role in the party, as we all do. This writer may have what one person called a “do nothing job” in the party, but he is proud of the role he plays. He has turned the position that he holds into something more than just an extra vote on meeting night, and has used it as a chance to try and serve the party and the community. Similarly, Dr. Hill could have a very serious role that others may not see or understand, but only if she is realistic about what she can do at once. In 2008, she ran for Congress in a crowded field where lots of people had a theoretical chance, but this year she runs against a well-financed and increasingly-respected Republican incumbent. Dr. Hill teaches American Government at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and this writer has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science. Between the two of us, it is probably fair to say that we’ve been around the political block and have both learned a thing or two from our experiences, hers admittedly tempered more with years. However, we are both educated in the ways of politics enough to know that Dr. Hill has as much chance of winning next year’s Republican Congressional Primary in the 3rd District as Spongebob Squarepants has of being elected President of the United States in 2012. That isn’t because of the color of Dr. Hill’s skin, it is because she is going to be underfunded and overworked-she does not have the resources to run a Congressional campaign that could seriously challenge an incumbent in a primary-and she has to know that considering her background.
However, Jean Howard Hill can be a serious Republican candidate for office, and she can serve the party in a way that we desperately need. Current civil rights and voting rights laws in this country require that certain legislative districts be drawn to be “majority minority.” Under our current political configuration, those legislative districts are almost all represented by Democrats, and in Tennessee, most of those people are African Americans. Sure, Republicans have run candidates in races against these people, but even when the candidate has been a black candidate, they haven’t been a viable candidate, but merely a placeholder. In Chattanooga, where Jean Howard Hill hails from, there are two such Tennessee House districts-the 28th District represented by Democrat Tommie Brown, and the neighboring 29th, represented by Democrat JoAnne Favors. In either of those districts, Jean Howard Hill would instantly be a serious and viable Republican candidate, because she has truly lived the black experience in America and can connect with her potential constituents-she isn’t just the black lady who made good, she is the lady preacher who would blow her opponents and their paper arguments to pieces in front of fellow African Americans. If Jean Howard Hill can win in a district like that, where Republicans never win, she could then at some point run for Congress in the future and be a very serious candidate, one who might even be able to challenge an incumbent in a Republican Primary.
We don’t make that suggestion because we want to limit Dr. Hill to running only in a predominately black district, but rather because the Republican Party is in dire need of viable African American candidates to run in those districts-and Jean Howard Hill has “viable State House candidate in black district” written all over her political pedigree. She would be very wise to consider that kind of a role within the Republican Party, and if she did, we might just find her in Congress one day yet.