About 50 folks from across the state gathered Thursday for a conference sponsored by The Frederick Douglass Foundation, the Conservative Alliance and the Georgia Black Republican Council.
Like most conferences, the networking during breaks was as constructive as the formal discussions. Old friends hugged, and new acquaintances swapped business cards. All appeared to gather strength just from the assurance they were not alone.
Not all of the participants were black. Some, like Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Revenue Commissioner Doug MacGinnitie offered insights and connections to the inside of the official government these conservatives want to change.
Much of the discussion sounded like any other gathering of conservatives. Peppered with jokes about liberals and union bashing, the topics ranged from education to juvenile justice, and they offered the opportunity for the audience to ask specific questions of academics, activists and policy analysts.
Such gatherings are common at the Capitol when the legislature is in session. At the same moment the black conservatives were meeting in a committee-hearing room, 2,000 enthusiasts were holding a rally across the street on the Capitol steps for Disability Day. The next day, a press conference on gun control drew dozens of President Barack Obama’s former campaign volunteers back together for a new cause, to advance his legislative agenda.
But it was the 15th annual Disability Day, and the echo of the most expensive, most sophisticated national campaign that pulled those groups together in such strength. By contrast, it was just the second time the black conservative summit had been held, and the numbers reflected that.
The fact that it was held at all may surprise some people who pooh-poohed the blacks showcased at last year’s Republican National Convention as mere window dressing. Many at the summit had the scars to proof their sincerity.
Dr. Deborah Honeycutt, for example, lost her bid to upset Congressman David Scott, a black Democrat, but offered no regrets.
“The message does get out, even if you don’t win,” she said. “Unless you start, there will not be others who recognize the goodness of basic, conservative values.”
Melvin Everson told of how a conversation with another parent chaperoning a school trip to Washington led to encouragement to run for local office in 1994. After that first race for Snellville City Council ended in defeat, he got appointed to a city board before running again unsuccessfully.
After multiple defeats in 10 years, he finally won election to the General Assembly in an overwhelmingly white, conservative district where he served until losing his statewide quest for labor commissioner two years ago.
He recommended continual engagement.
“As conservatives, we cannot wait until six months before an election to be out in the community,” he said.
Other officials told similar stories of repeated election losses before finally winning. Even success comes with pain.
“You lose friends in politics,” said Tim Johnson, founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation and the first black vice chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. “You lose a lot of friends in politics. You lose relatives.”
One of the panelists, Michael McNeely, president of the Georgia Black Republican Council, was still nursing some bruises received the week before when he was shouldered out of the Douglas County delegation to the state GOP convention. Ironically, he had just met with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus about ways to attract more blacks to the party when local party officials shut him out.
Darryl Wilson, founder of the summit, is pleased with its growth.
“The event has doubled in size since its inaugural opening in 2012 as Georgians flock to the Capitol to have a bigger impact in government and its impact on small business and the community,” he says in a press release.
The evidence of whatever that impact may be won’t be felt immediately. Neither will the impact of Disability Day or the Obama supporters and their Organizing for Action.
But since one hand clapping makes no sound, the fact that these groups gather together at all signals the beginning of applause that may grow to thunderous levels over time.