Last month, when Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign hired veteran GOP operative and conservative pundit Tara Wall as its senior communications adviser, many assumed the former Massachusetts governor was preparing to get serious about his outreach to the black community. But Wall, one of the most high-profile black conservatives on the media circuit, says her primary job will be to shape the presumptive GOP nominee’s overall communication strategy — her ability to appeal to blacks, women, and other groups will presumably be a side benefit for the Romney team.
Still, as Gov. Romney takes on the nation’s first black president, it would be silly to think he wasn’t making a play for the black vote by bringing Ms. Wall onboard. As reported in The Washington Post, Romney’s plan is not so much to battle Democrats for the Black vote (he knows that would be a losing game), but to demonstrate to independent and swing voters that he “can be inclusive and tolerant in his thinking and approach.”
Ms. Wall will have her work cut out for her. Romney’s infamous quote that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” and his lack of clarity on the immigration issue have left him looking out of touch on social justice matters. And then a recent visit to a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia to talk about education was greeted by unfriendly crowds — and some harsh criticism from Philly Mayor Michael Nutter. But, as Ms. Wall observes, Romney did show up, and he’s eager to demonstrate his willingness to interact with diverse communities.
If Philadelphia is any indication, it’s going to be a long, brutal road for Gov. Romney if he’s serious about breaking down the walls between the GOP and non-white communities. But Wall likes their chances. She recently spoke to UrbanFaith’s news and religion editor Christine Scheller about the challenge of being a black Republican, why Barack Obama is a likable guy, and how Mitt Romney’s policies will be good for the African American community. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Can you tell us about your journey from television journalist to columnist to CNN contributor, to adviser to the GOP, and now adviser to Governor Mitt Romney?
TARA WALL: Politics and journalism have been a part of my life since I was a kid. I always knew I wanted to be a reporter, and I always knew I wanted to be civically engaged, so I always did things in that vein to bridge the gap between people of different cultures and backgrounds. I told my pastor I wanted to do both and he said, “You can’t do politics and reporting. You have to pick one or the other.” At the time, you really couldn’t. Now it’s a little different. The worlds do meld. Throughout my career, my interest always went politically. I had been covering Governor Engler as an education reporter and literally got recruited by someone who worked in his administration to come work as a liason in his Detroit office. I loved it, and by virtue of doing that, I also worked on the first Bush campaign. I really believed President Bush’s message and wanted to support him. My story about becoming a conservative Republican is a whole other tier, but I always knew that I had conservative values. I was raised that way.
But you didn’t always identify as a Republican?
When I first went away to college at Florida A & M, I joined the school newspaper and I joined a political organization. The only political organization there was the Florida Young Democrats. Somebody asked me why I was a Democrat. I didn’t know that I was; I didn’t know I was anything at that point. I didn’t like that I didn’t know the answer to that question. So it wasn’t until I started examining both sides that I knew I was more aligned conservatively. I also credit the fact that I had the benefit of hearing people’s full speeches when I covered political events. At the time school choice was huge and I covered that extensively. I found myself agreeing with education reform, welfare reform, and less government.
In the 1950s, when it was perfectly acceptable and expected that some people would need welfare, my grandmother had to raise five kids on her own after my grandfather left her. She didn’t want welfare. She wanted to raise her kids on her own and she did. She went back to school because she didn’t want the government taking care of her kids. I grew up with that mentality. My parents worked very hard. I am middle class and worked from the time I was 14 years old. We were people of faith. We went to church. Those are some of the things that shaped me.
I never thought I would be a mouthpiece for the party, because as a reporter, I liked being independent. I liked having the ability to disagree, but I remember being at a rally with President Bush and it struck me how humble he was and how he spoke so highly of his mother and her impact on his life and his faith. That struck a chord with me, and so I definitely wanted to help the campaign after that. I did that for a year and then I got right back into TV in St. Louis. Then 9/11 happened, and everyone got laid off, including me. I thought maybe God was trying to tell me something, that maybe this business wasn’t for me anymore. I decided to go back to Detroit because 9/11 was devastating for everyone, including me, and I just wanted to go home. I had my own TV show in Detroit, which I loved, and had no plans to leave. Then I got recruited by the Republican National Committee to help get President Bush reelected. Had I not had Ed Gillespie on my show, I probably would not have gone. But I grilled him. I asked him, “What are you going to do to be inclusive and build the party?” I was so struck and so awed by his response. I just felt like, “This guy really gets it. He really understands what’s needed and how to communicate on this level.” About a month later I got the call from the RNC. It was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make, but I kept telling myself that someone has to deliver this message and maybe I’m the person they need help do it.
Is your public service grounded in your faith?
It’s grounded in a lot things. It’s grounded in faith and family. A lot of what continued to develop from a civic standpoint was born out of my faith and the principles we were taught in that regard in church, but I fell in love with civics when I was in fifth grade. I was one of those kids who watched cartoons and the news. In high school, I watched C-span. I always felt a moral responsibility and a moral obligation to be the underdog and tell peoples’ stories. I know what it feels like to be bullied. People always say, “How can you do this? How do you take on so much? You’re anomaly.” But my dad raised to have a thick skin. I think we’re all here for a purpose. Not to sound too cheesy, but I feel like this is what my life destiny is. God gave me the ability to be in front of a lot of people, to have a great career doing TV, and then to use those abilities to help others articulate their messages.
I hope to help do that with the campaign. The issues that are presented to us cross racial barriers. There are racial disparities that exist, but there is more than a one-party solution to those issues. I just want folks that look like me to know that there are other options. There are more ways to address these issues and I’d like them to give us a chance. As Governor Romney goes out and speaks about some of these issues in our communities, I think he’s very sensitive to listening and I think that’s very important. I’m here to assist in that area.
What will your strategy be for helping to make Governor Romney appealing to communities of color?
I think we all know that 90 percent, if not more, of blacks are Democrats and will vote for President Obama. So, people need to know that we do have a message and that the Obama campaign doesn’t have a lock on the black vote. Our goal is not to take any vote for granted. We also have to make sure that we’re continuing to reach out broadly to our base, our base of black conservatives, Republicans, moderates, those who have supported us in the past and those who may have voted for Obama, but are looking for us to say, “Come back home.”
Do you think Governor Romney’s recent visit to a Philadelphia charter school was a mistake, or was his visit to that predominantly African American school reported inaccurately?
It was unfortunate how it was characterized. That an elected official [Mayor Michael Nutter] decided to come and bracket an educational event was a little absurd. He certainly has that right, but Governor Romney was welcomed at the school. Parents and teachers who want choice absolutely welcomed his message. They were happy he was there. I think that this goes a long way in showing that Governor Romney is open to listen to and from those folks who know what’s best for their schools and for their kids. He has a great message about closing the gap between minority and non-minority students. What has President Obama done to help bridge that gap? We see one-in-three young black kids right now have no work. We see the unemployment rate in the black community at a staggering 13 percent and we’ve had 40 months of unemployment. Those are things that need to be the focus, not these distractions.
Why are Romney’s ideas good for the black community? For example, how will his ideas and policies impact the high unemployment rate in the black community?
He has outlined a number of things he would do his first day in office. Some of the things we have to look at are the reasons people are out of work. It’s harder to find jobs because job-killing regulations are costing this economy billions of dollars. President Obama wants to raise taxes on Americans, particularly small start-up businesses that employ half of all private-sector workers. They’re not able to do that. They’ve been hindered from [hiring new workers] because of the tax burden and regulations. Mitt Romney thinks reforming the tax code is fundamental. Lowering the tax rate to 25 percent, making the R&D tax credit permanent. That in itself fosters innovation. Working with congress to lower individual tax rates by 20 percent across the board. That helps the small business, because a lot of times, these small business folks are being lumped in with corporations and it’s not right. I run my own small business, so I know what it’s like. It’s stifling. I’ve heard from small business owners who say in 40 years, they haven’t not been able to hire this way. They can’t do anything because they feel so hindered by all of this.
That’s one part. The other part Governor Romney has talked about is repealing regulations on day one and capping annual increases and regulatory costs at zero dollars. That also adds thousands of jobs and billions of dollars to the economy. This is his number one focus as opposed to President Obama, who doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the economy right now. He’s focusing on everything else, visiting celebrities and going on shows. If we could just focus on getting the economy back, it’s going to help African Americans and those who have been disproportionately hurt by this entire economic situation.
Why aren’t we talking more about black unemployment? Black joblessness? We are, but I have yet to hear anything substantive from this administration. And, God knows, I’m sure President Obama means well. He’s absolutely a likable person. I’m sure folks feel compelled every time they hear him speak, but what has the soaring rhetoric resulted in? When you have 40 straight months of job loss, what has that done to the black community? What has that done for black job growth and entrepreneurship?
Is there any hope of shaking up the traditional alignment of Black Christians with the Democratic party and white evangelicals with the Republican party?
Black conservatives, particularly in the South, will cross party lines to vote on certain initiatives. While they overwhelming still vote Democrat, they’re more conservative from a faith perspective. I don’t know how that will translate this election. I suspect that, at least from the folks that I’ve heard from, there are those who are disappointed from a faith perspective in some decisions that the president has made, but some of them will probably still vote for him. There are others that say, “I’m not sure. I’m still pondering how much that means to me.” I don’t know that it’s going to cause people of faith in the black community to overwhelmingly come to our side. I think black conservatives, yes; black moderates who are on the fence, maybe yes; but black Democrats who may disagree with him, I don’t know that that’s necessarily going to be a game changer for them. That would be just me pontificating, and that doesn’t mean we won’t speak out and court all those who value the platform that the party and the candidate stands for. Hopefully we’ll reach those that we might be able to find some bridges with.
Can the GOP leverage politicians of color like Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, and Nikki Haley to attract a more diverse constituency or will it always appear that these politicians are tokens?
I think [Gov. Romney] already is attracting a more diverse constituency, and I reject the notion of tokenism. It’s long been discounted. These are sitting elected officials who are Republicans. So that’s absurd. There are many in the black and Latino community who have voluntarily come out and supported Governor Romney: Condoleezza Rice, former Education Secretary Rod Paige, who is on his education advisory panel, Representative Tim Scott, Marco Rubio. These are folks who support the ideals and the leadership that Governor Romney represents and that’s what’s important. You don’t have to go that far to find many others like them, despite the narrative the media puts out there.
It was ironic at the Philadelphia event that it was the same day or the day after Secretary Rod Paige was announced as an education advisor and no one even picked it up. No one interviewed him or talked to him about his support for Governor Romney and why he was helping him to craft some positive solutions relative to schools and school choice.
What is the biggest misconception that women and people of color have about Mitt Romney?
The problem with perceptions is that they change day-to-day. One day he’s up; one day he’s down. Right now he seems to be up. His numbers have gone up a little among women. Obviously you never want to fuel perception any further if it’s completely inaccurate and you definitely want to correct mistruths. It’s up to pundits to decide about perceptions. They’re going to hash that around. The campaign is focused on insuring the message gets out to women, to minorities, and to others across the country, what his record is, what he believes are the best tools to move this country forward, and reminding voters of the abysymal record we’ve seen these past four years with President Obama.
You’ve been a Republican adviser for nearly a decade. Have you been criticized by other people of color for your party affiliation or are we at a place where people can respect differing political convictions?
I wish we were at that place. Do you want to see my emails?
What kinds of things do people say?
Very nasty, hateful horrible things that I can’t even repeat to be honest with you. But I don’t focus on that. I go back to the fact that my dad raised me to have a tough skin. I know that not everybody can speak out the way I can. For every one of me, there are 50 more that aren’t as brave as me. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They’re secret Republicans or closet Republicans because it’s not worth it for them and their families to put themselves on the line that way. Not everyone can do that. I accept this as my cross to bear, if you will, because someone has to speak out. Someone has to be that person, until those attitudes and ideas change and until we do get to a point that we can have a civil discussion about where this country needs to go. There are varying opinions even within the Republican party.
Black Republicans are not monolithic. Sometimes we disagree amongst ourselves, but that’s part of the healthy, natural debate. It’s getting better, but there are certain things we haven’t broken through and certain ideals we haven’t broken through. Anytime you have a majority of one race voting one party, it doesn’t serve us well. It shouldn’t serve anyone well if the party is taking any vote for granted. That’s not the way politics was designed. It was designed to be a debate and discussion and a sharing of ideals. We shouldn’t be giving our vote over to one party, whatever that party is. We should examine the issues. I want to see more parity, from a party perspective. It would be great if we could have 50 percent down the line on each side of the aisle, or maybe one day there will be a purple party.
I heard [former Democratic] Rep. Artur Davis recently speak. He said that his ideals and beliefs are not welcome in the Democratic party. I feel that way. That doesn’t mean I don’t go to organizations and events that are highly Democratic, but a lot of times I feel out of place. I feel like my viewpoint is not represented on the stage or in a panel, and I don’t think that’s right.
Does your status as an African American Republican woman help you identify with Governor Romney when he is criticized for his Mormon faith?
I just think that’s another diversion. People of faith have embraced Governor Romney. They respect that he’s a man of faith period. From Evangelicals to Catholics, people have come out and said, “This is a man of faith.” That’s what counts to most Americans, knowing that he has a belief system and values. He’s a man of character and integrity. He’s a family man. Those are the things that matter to Americans.