In a marked change from his predecessors, Florida’s new Republican governor is tackling many issues important to black voters, so much so that one black Democratic lawmaker calls him the state’s first black governor.

Charlie Crist’s agenda stands in sharp contrast to that of the national Republican Party, which has long had a contentious relationship with the black community and its leaders – most recently, when the party’s four leading presidential candidates skipped a debate at a historically black college.

“Crist is much different than national Republicans,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor. “In some ways, you could argue that he’s done more on African-American issues than most Democrats have done recently.”

Tara Wall, a former senior advisor for the Republican National Committee, told that Republican presidential candidates — and GOP politicians like Crist — “have an agenda that appeals to the black community.”

Since taking office in January, Crist has:

  • Worked with the Cabinet to restore felons’ voting rights after they complete their sentences, bringing Florida in line with most other states. The change has a disproportionate effect on blacks, who make up nearly half of new inmates.
  • Pushed through a law that requires a paper trail for all ballots cast, helping allay fears that votes in black communities were being undercounted by computerized voting machines.
  • Supported a bill awarding $5 million to the family of a black teenager who died after being roughed up by guards at a boot camp for juvenile offenders.
  • Addressed the state’s NAACP convention, the first Republican governor to accept the group’s invitation.

“He pledged he was going to be a governor for all the people and so far, from everything I’ve seen, that’s what he’s been doing,” said state Sen. Tony Hill, a black Democrat.

Seven years ago, Hill and another black legislator, Rep. Kendrick Meek, staged a sit-in to get an audience with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who had refused to meet with them before ending affirmative action in state hiring and university admissions. But Hill met with Crist on back-to-back days this month to talk about anti-gang programs, appointments, health care and a possible humanitarian trip to Haiti.

Meanwhile, outside of Florida, some African-American conservatives say it’s time for the party of Lincoln to aggressively broaden its appeal to people of color across the country — not just in Florida.

Michelle Bernard, a black conservative and president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum, told that when GOP presidential candidates miss opportunities like the Morgan State debate, “it screams that we’re a party of white men.”

In a recent op-ed article, Bernard said if she was running for president as a Republican, she would “engage black voters of all political stripes in a dialogue about why the party’s belief in individual liberty, personal responsibility and free markets is the solution to many of the problems black Americans confront today.”

“I would not treat black voters as a special interest group,” Bernard wrote. “Nor would I assume that black voters are a monolithic voting bloc. Most importantly, I would not ignore black voters. To do so would leave this critical voting bloc with a sense that only one major political party has any interest in the issues that affect their lives.”

Republicans — black and white — have discussed what it will take to convince black folks that Republicans are interested in diversity and are prepared to offer a message of inclusion.

Bernard said, that according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Democratic share of the black vote declined from 2000 to 2004.

In Ohio, for example, between 2000 and 2004, the percentage of blacks who voted for President Bush increased from 9 to 16 percent. Similar increases were seen in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Given the narrow margin of victory President Bush realized in Ohio and other key states, all candidates should remember that every vote counts. In 2008, the number of black voters casting a ballot for a Republican candidate could make all of the difference, she wrote.

“The key to the political soul of black voters in America is pretty simple — equal opportunity and economic prosperity,” Bernard said in her article. “If Republicans communicate their message effectively, 2008 may be a turning point in the battle for the political soul of the black vote.”

Some black conservatives — part of a broad coalition of black Republicans from across the country — said privately that while they believe the GOP is moving forward and winning over some black voters, the party often stumbles and often loses ground.

Michael Steele, the former Lt. Governor of Maryland who became the first black to win statewide office in Maryland, told that he’s been a Republican for 30 years and has “always maintained that if given an opportunity, Republicans should engage black voters.”

Steele said African-American voters are looking for “a different kind of leader,” an honest leader who will tell Americans the truth.

“If we’re going to be in Iraq for a while, then be honest; if the economy is doing better but not all boats have risen with the tide, be honest,” Steele told

“I’d like to hear the Republican candidates talk about health care, and economics and poverty, speak to those issues and engage black voters,” Steele said. “But it’s not just about black issues; bad education is as bad for white folks as it is for black folks. And it’s not a red problem or a blue problem. It’s a real problem.”

Bernard said Republicans have a serious shot at the White House — with the support of black Americans.

“I would warn African-Americans about the downsides of Democratic proposals to expand the federal government’s role in providing healthcare,” Bernard wrote. “More government regulations and restrictions will mean rising costs, long lines, and potentially outright rationing of care. Offer a better vision of our healthcare system, one that has patients in control of healthcare resources and decisions.”

“As the race for the White House heats up,” she said, “it’s only natural for political commentators to focus on which candidate has the most traction in the black community. Make no mistake, black voters are listening, and a really smart Republican candidate just might have a chance.”

In Florida, blacks make up 15.7 percent of the state’s population and nearly a quarter of the state’s registered Democrats. But they constitute less than 2 percent of the state’s registered Republicans.

Still, Crist courted the black community during last year’s campaign. He went to churches, soul-food restaurants and community centers and was well received. He often mentioned that in the 1960s his father, a physician and school board member in then-segregated St. Petersburg, volunteered to be the team doctor for a black high school’s football team, teaching him a lesson about racial tolerance.

At one event, about 75 people came to see him at a restaurant in a predominantly black Jacksonville neighborhood. The place was covered with Crist signs, and a Crist campaign billboard was posted across the street. The enthusiasm was electric as Crist walked through the room.

Democrats predicted Crist’s outreach to black voters wouldn’t work and accused him of pandering. But Crist earned 18 percent of the black vote, triple what Bush received in his 2002 re-election and double what a Republican typically receives in a statewide election.

Since then, Crist has worked to convince black Floridians that his efforts weren’t just an election-year tactic. He met with black leaders in Jacksonville to talk about the city’s violence, spoke to the NAACP, attended a legislative black caucus banquet where he was given a hero’s welcome and volunteered to serve as the United Negro College Fund’s Florida fundraising campaign chairman.

“Charlie Crist has been a friend to the African-American community even before he became governor,” said Democratic Rep. Terry Fields of Jacksonville, who referred to Crist as the state’s “first black governor.”

Crist “made a commitment to a whole lot of us a long time ago, and he has been fair, he’s been accessible, he has attended a lot of our meetings.”

Adora Obi Nweze, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Florida chapter, recalls in 2002 when the organization invited every statewide candidate to a forum. Crist, who was running for attorney general, was the only candidate, Republican or Democrat, who attended.

“I will never forget it,” Crist said, when reminded of the event. “I was shocked and I said, ‘You should never be taken for granted. I will never do that, and I hope that my sincerity about that is evidenced by my presence here now. I’m here. I’m here for you, and I want your support.'”

Crist’s actions aren’t just to build support among black voters, said James Harris, a lobbyist who has done black voter outreach for Democratic U.S. senators.

“A lot of times there are political results attached, but I think he thinks: ‘These are the things as governor I should do.’

“A lot of folks say that it is pandering. I just don’t agree,” Harris added. “Folks who have had the opportunity to meet him really come away with the feeling that this guy cares.”