Oft scorned by both their constituencies, three DIY political activists from Philly discuss what it's like to be long-shot conservatives.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he reportedly turned to an aide and predicted, “We have lost the South for a generation.” That’s mostly proven correct, as the former Confederacy has tipped toward the red in most presidential elections since. But Johnson also could have noted the flip side of that equation, which is that the Democratic Party would cease to be the “white” party; the Civil Rights Act put an end to its prior hundred years of affiliation with anti-equality forces. Today, more than 90 percent of African-Americans are Democrats. Indeed, for a time before the 2012 presidential election, national polls showed Republican Mitt Romney polling at 0 percent with African-American voters—running, of course, against the country’s first African-American president, a Democrat.
That doesn’t mean black Republicans don’t exist. Locally, there’s a group in the city called the Philadelphia Republicans of Color—Philly ROC, for short—and some African-American candidates do regularly run for political office as Republicans in the city, the popular perception of the party’s old-white-guy base notwithstanding.
Philadelphia Weekly sat down this month for a roundtable discussion with three local black Republican figures: former Philly ROC head Lewis Harris, who’s freshly disaffiliated from the party after five years as a Republican; 2012 congressional candidate Sgt. Robert Allen Mansfield; and current Philly ROC head Thermone Spence, Jr. We wanted to know what makes these guys fight oft-losing battles in a city where Republicans are outnumbered 9 to 1—and African-American Republicans are outnumbered by a ratio that’s too ridiculous to even spell out in these pages.
(Note: The full conversation ran two and a half hours; this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
PW: Let’s start with introductions. Who are you, and how do you represent African-American issues in the Republican Party?
Sgt. Robert Mansfield: I’m an Iraq War veteran. I’m a lifelong Republican. I ran for Congress in 2012 as a Republican. We kind of made history on that note, that we got the most votes on the Republican ticket that any Republican has in the last 20 years in the second congressional district. And this was the year President Obama was [heading the Democratic] ballot. I’m more of a state and national Republican. I’m also a Tea Party activist, although my relationship with the Philadelphia Tea Party is almost nonexistent. I’m still working with national Tea Party organizations, but not Philadelphia.
I guess what I bring to the panel today is a macro perspective of the Republican Party in my personal experiences. I was homeless for four years in this city, being the son of a heroin addict. I’ve been through the whole gauntlet. You name it, I’ve been through it in this city. And, so, the reason why I’m a Republican is because of all those past experiences that shape my worldview. I’m a fairly conservative guy, both personally and politically: I’m an orthodox Episcopalian and I’m slightly to the right of my church on some issues. But I personally do not have any problems being a Republican—an African-American Republican in the era of Obama.
One of the things I found that was heartening, when I looked at the numbers in the 32nd Ward, I was humbled that 300 people in my ward thought enough of me to vote for me. That meant they split their ticket. They had that much respect, and I’m honored by that. That was an honor, that 300 people in my community voted for me. So, I have a larger obligation as a Republican to represent them and represent North Philadelphia, wherever I go around the country and around the world, in the best manner that I can.
Lewis Harris: I was the chairman of Philly ROC, the Philadelphia Republicans of Color. I recently transferred those duties over to Mr. Spence here, so he can carry the ball. Philly ROC is predominantly made up of ward leaders and committee people—and Republicans of the minority status, which would be Asian, Hispanic and blacks. In the greater Northeast, all of the wards are pretty much solid in the Republican Party, and they’re basically white. They’re a stronghold. What we’re trying to do is take 17 or 18 wards [in the city] that are predominantly black or Hispanic, and try to convert it into a political power base. And to educate the ward leaders on how to properly run their wards without being manipulated by the, quote, Republican Party’s city committee ... [which] dictates leadership and their candidates, and the party really don’t have the say, nor do the voting public.
I was elected ward leader in the 29th ward as a Republican ... I was chairman of the 40th ward. I also won—even though I was challenged by Republicans—I won national status for delegate for the second congressional district in the national convention for the Republican Party. I went to Florida and participated in the nomination for Mitt Romney to run as the presidential candidate for the Republican Party.
[I’ve just left the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat so that] now I’m able to talk to people who wouldn’t have a conversation with me before—because as soon as they hear I’m a Republican, their mind cuts off. But if I’m saying I’m a Democrat—you should see, I’ve tried it all week: “I switched, I’m a Democrat now”—then I can talk to them. They’re much more friendly, open, and they hear a point of view they’ve never heard, because they’re not blocked off with this label.
Thermone Spence, Jr.: I’m also a disabled vet. I served my country in the United States Marine Corps. I served for 11 years ... three honorable discharges. I’m a committee person for the 17th ward and a ward leader for the 10th ward division; I’m on an advisory board for athletic recreation in the heart of North Philly, even though I live in West Oak Lane. And that’s purposely done because I firmly believe that if I help those who are less fortunate than me and help bring them to the standards that we have, that creates no animosity between our people. And when I say our people, I just don’t mean Afro-Americans. I mean Asian, Hispanic, Indian, Israeli—because our communities are getting very versatile ... Philadelphia was one of the most segregated cities in the entire country, but we’re breaking out of that.
PW: You’ve all mentioned to me—and we’ll talk about it—your feelings that the Republican Party apparatus doesn’t always treat you as respectfully as you’d like. So: Why are you Republicans?
Harris: When I looked at the Republican Party, I looked at two things: I’ve been married 39 years. I would say that if it weren’t for my wife, the bills would never be paid correct. I mean, really. The bills wouldn’t be paid correct, even though we make money. She makes sure that—how do they call it in the Republican Party—‘fiscal responsibility’ exists. I would take half my paycheck and if I think I can buy three cars over there and sell them, to get a profit, I’m going to try and make that gamble. “No we won’t. You can take this portion of your money.” So when I looked at the Republican Party, one, they do have a degree of fiscal responsibility. …
The second side is, I’m concerned about blacks walking in and the Democrat party using a famous-named person on the ballot, while a bad [incumbent] who has not done anything [in office] hides behind their famous person on the ballot, and you go, “Oh, Stevie Wonder’s on the ballot, so everyone on this list must be good. So we’re going to go in and vote for everyone on this list because Stevie’s on here.” And that’s pretty much what was going on with the first Obama [election].
I would tell people to look at candidates first. Stop hitting the one lever ... The reason I was involved in the Republican Party was because I didn’t want our people to be hoodwinked by either the Democrats or Republicans. I want them to be able to become more sophisticated, because we’re not working now on a local, state or national level. We’re working now toward a global economy, and right now the attention that I see the Republican Party going to is: They’re going to bypass Afro-Americans, they’re going straight to the Hispanics. Because they know the Hispanic population is going to increase. At the Republican convention, the people there said, “The blacks are so indoctrinated with the Democrat party for so many years, they’re not going to change. They’re a lost cause. We got a better chance convincing Hispanic and the Latino population because the chances are, they’re not so ingrained.”
Mansfield: When I first registered to vote, I was 18. Dr. Danjczek, who was the former executive director of the Children’s Home of Easton [where I grew up], he came to me and said, “You’re getting to the age where you’re getting ready to register for selective service and to vote.” And he said, “Why don’t you consider the Republican Party?” And I did. I didn’t understand the party platform at the time. I voted for the first time in 1989, straight Republican ticket. As I came back to Philadelphia and I became homeless, I started to look at my value system. And I found that, despite all the things that happened to me in my life and made me homeless at the time, I was pretty much a conservative. So, I’m still with the Republican Party because I’m still pretty much a conservative. I’m a conservative first, before I’m a Republican.
I am most conservative on fiscal issues and lots of social issues. For instance, on the social issues, I’m staunchly pro-life. My mother was a heroin addict and God’s grace gave her enough sense in her heroin addiction—although I was born addicted to heroin as well—to impress upon her to give me life. According to some of the reports that I’ve read, because I’ve never met my mother, according to some of the reports it was alleged that she was raped. So, that was even more important for me as I got older and understood the difference between being pro-life and pro-choice, it was important for me to be pro-life. In fact, I am to the right of my church. My church has one exception and that’s for the health of the mother. I don’t even—I went to the right of my church. I attend an Orthodox Episcopalian church, which is a very conservative church; we’re separate from the main Episcopal Church.
PW: Why do you not make an exception for the life of the mother?
Mansfield: Because my mother was a heroin addict and it was a high-risk pregnancy. Yet, God saw fit to show grace and show mercy on me to allow me to live and, therefore, I am not to take the life or say to someone else that they shouldn’t have life. It’s important to note that only those who are living are advocates of abortion. I believe that if it’s the will of the Lord, let God do his job and let that life move forward. It’s not up to me to decide who lives and who dies. And I understand that my beliefs are not—someone else is going to disagree with those beliefs. And I have to respect them, and I ask that they respect me as well. In my neighborhood, they know I’m a Republican. But they also know that if they’re hungry, they can knock on my door and I’m going to feed them. I’m not going to look down on them and say no. That’s the difference between being a conservative and being a con-servative. There’s a big difference. You have compassion on people and that’s being conservative. But if you’re looking down on people and you’re making these pronouncements on people, you are a con-servative: you’re there for the politics of it all. But at the end of the day, it’s about the humanity of the individual.
PW: Mr. Spence, why are you Republican?
Spence: Well, number one and first, praise the Lord. Out of respect for my great-grandmother, who passed for white, worked in a white house, who told me the history of the Republican Party, first and foremost, and explained it … She explained to me that if it wasn’t for the great Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King—if these strange men didn’t stand up and try to fight for us and try to educate our people on economics and also, as Mr. Harris says, political clout, strongness in your beliefs—we would not be here. Also, as a young person, because I was very fair-skinned, I experienced being taken from my mother’s arms and having my mother told, “Black bitch, what are you doing with this white man’s baby?”
The Republican Party has an excellent opportunity and they’re not taking advantage of it. Because we’re Afro-American, we’re not acknowledged as much as we should be. We’re put to the side, and that needs to stop.
PW: OK, so let’s get to that. Why do you think the party doesn’t acknowledge black Republicans as much as it should?
Harris: I’m the chairman of the board at a community center, the Wharton Center, and it has a great history of abolition—the Quakers, slaves, a rich history. Back in ‘82 or ‘83, a lady came over and said, “Would you like to make history? We want to have a meeting at your center for the first time, of black Republicans.” And I was like, black Republicans? I had never, ever heard of that. First, I had never met a Republican in the first place, because they were demonized. The second thing was, they were black. I was like, whoa. I didn’t even ask for rent. I just wanted to see if these humans existed, so I said, “Sure.” I was surprised how many showed up—it was 14 or 15. I was stunned. I sat in the background, because I, of course, was a Democrat. I just wanted to see what was going on. And I was, they came in, they were very well dressed, neat, they weren’t drunk or fall-outs. And they didn’t seem to be Uncle Tom-ish, they just seemed like regular blacks, and I was surprised. And as he stood before them to present, in came a light-skinned black—I’ll never forget it—well-dressed, neat-looking guy, and a very heavy, but happy-go-lucky-looking faced white guy. He stepped right in front of them and said, “We’re not having this meeting, you didn’t get permission.” I was so shocked. [They were local Republican party officials.] The next thing I know the group got up and was leaving—and from that moment, I said to myself: They need somebody like me in there. So, that was my first introduction to the Republican Party on the black side.
Mansfield: It started with me when I ran for governor in 2010. We had to go to the state party on three separate occasions to remind them: “If you have all the other candidates up there on the website, we need to be there as well.”
[After] that first instance in 2010, I switched from being a Republican to an Independent. I can never be a Democrat, so I switched to being an Independent. A year after that, I went back to being a Republican, because it’s where I feel comfortable. Being an Independent is very lonely—you don’t get a say in primaries and what have you ...
Then, in 2012, they asked me to run for the second congressional seat [after I dropped out of the race for U.S. Senate], and I agreed to do so. I understood the reality that I wasn’t going to win the primary for U.S. Senate. But in order to help the party, the best thing to do was to run for this seat and raise the profile of the Republican Party, even in the face of the president of the United States. [My campaign] made a strategic decision to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. When we did that … everybody went apeshit, all the Republicans, the Tea Party. Republicans were going behind our back, saying I was going to drop out of the race; they were trying to recruit another candidate. The Tea Party called me a RINO, un-American, I was anti-American, I was pro-Barack Obama, I was all these things.
Spence: [In the mid-1970s,] I was not old enough to vote yet. There was a youth group, ”junior police” they called it, back in the day. [One Philadelphia politician suggested] that if we’d support his campaign, we would be able to go into the police academy, then when we graduated, we could sit and work at the desk until we were 21 years old—because it used to be, in Pennsylvania, you had to be 21 years old before you could have a firearm. He turned around after the election and, every Afro-American that was helping him—running him around to the neighborhoods, introducing him, bringing him to the churches—he screwed them in every way he could … I couldn’t understand that, because I wasn’t politically savvy at the time. But I finally figured out, and finally got, someone was kind enough to educate me on what he did. He threw us to the side, and this is the problem I had with the Republican Party: They want to use you, and once they get what they want, it’s the hell with you. Not thinking about tomorrow or the future.
Mansfield: Whenever the Republican Party wants to bring out a black face to speak out against President Obama—they always bring us out like we’re dogs, like we’re mannequins. We’re put in the window. We’re window dressing. I got called earlier in the campaign to come out to protest President Obama coming to town. And I told them, as a former non-commissioned officer in the United States Army, I cannot go to a protest to protest my commander-in-chief. The Tea Party wanted to put me up there to say some things against the president of the United States, and I had a speech written. I went up there and I did my own thing. I am not going to let folks use me as a propaganda tool because you disagree with this gentleman.
Harris: My biggest thing was the Romney campaign office. First, if you’re talking about inclusion, I told them: Why would you have a big, giant window that says Mitt Romney or whatever, then have all white folks in the front making phone calls? No blacks, no Hispanics. It was ridiculous.
Spence: To me as a Republican, and as an Afro-American Republican, [Romney] blatantly disrespected me. He didn’t think I was worth his time of the day. He didn’t put no money in my community’s pocket, but yet you want me to run out there and bust my hump for you? No, it ain’t happening.
Harris: It’s gonna kill 'em. I really predict that if they don’t make a change with blacks and Latino, there’s going to be an independent minority party. It might be me organizing it.
Spence: It might be a three-party situation in Philadelphia alone, and it might become national.
Mansfield: Michael Steele said in 2012 that by 2016, if the Republican Party doesn’t understand that the demographic sands are shifting quickly under the Republican feet, then this party will cease to exist by 2016.
Harris: One of the things I don’t like is that the Republican Party reaches out to blacks to run for office—
Spence: —and they don’t support them.
Harris: Not only do they not support them, but I found that there are certain dollars [provided by the national party to the state party if it’s running] for certain types of candidates. Even if they’re not going to [actively] back them. It’s like … “I’m going to get as many blacks to run,” knowing they’re not a viable candidate, so “I can take the money that we would have focused on that candidate, and I’m going to focus on who I want to focus on.”
PW: The state party isn’t required to split the national party’s funds evenly.
Harris: No. And that’s the problem.
Mansfield: The other thing that is disturbing about conservatives in this country and in this state and in this city is that, this is one thing, we are conservative when it’s ...
Mansfield: Convenient. We are convenient conservatives. Here’s what I mean: There are a number of apartment projects in the city, downtown, that have been funded by the state. Those [developers] are probably very conservative until they need money. I don’t believe that any taxpayer dollars should be going to any private sector project. If the market can’t bear it, then it falls. Let the free market make the determination. But these people become conservatives when it’s convenient. When I started my company, Thadeus Capital, in 2011, I said: We’re not taking any government contracts, we’re not taking any government money, we’re not taking any tax breaks, because that’s not being conservative—that’s being a con-servative. Because I’m not into being a conservative when it’s convenient. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s hard having an ideology, and you’ve got to sometimes be flexible, but you can’t take government money when it’s convenient and then turn around and say to people, we shouldn’t be bailing out GM. No, we shouldn’t be bailing out GM and we shouldn’t be bailing you out. People who are going to spend $600,000 for an apartment—we shouldn’t be subsidizing that. We have ... women and children on the waiting list right now, living in shelters, going from shelters, who don’t have an affordable house, but yet we fund these million, multi-million dollar apartment complexes? No. That’s not being a conservative, and the Republican Party is going to have to get back to core principles.
PW: Sgt. Mansfield, talking about women and children are going from shelter to shelter—would it, in your mind, still be conservative to use government money to help those people out?
Mansfield: Yes, it is. And let me explain how. The Constitution says we are to promote the general welfare—not the general welfare state, but the general welfare. What that means is, if you go up a ladder and you fall, we as a rich nation, must have, should have a safety net for people to bounce off of. I benefited from that safety net. Who am I to tell a woman, or any gentleman who’s in a homeless shelter, that they’re lazy, they’re shiftless, that they need—yeah, we need to get some of these guys back to the first principles of hard work, personal responsibility, but don’t tell them that when they’re sitting on the street hungry. Feed them. Speak with them and teach them how to fish and fend for themselves. And at the same time, give them shelter. So, I’m not against welfare. I came out against the expansion of Medicaid, and we’ll explain that later, but I’m not against a safety net. I just don’t think that the people who can go to the market and raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a real estate project should be getting taxpayer dollars. Or tax credit. Nor do I think that [financial services firms] should receive millions of dollars from the state and the city to stay in Philadelphia. If you want to leave, baby, leave, and let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. We can’t keep doing this.
We’re in a horrific fiscal situation. We are 100 percent or more debt-to-GDP ratio. We are a $15 trillion gross domestic product, yet we are running a $16 trillion debt. That is over 100—and that’s not the real number. The real number, when you include Medicare and Social Security, the real number is 100 trillion dollars. Unfunded. We can’t keep giving tax breaks to everybody who comes down the pike. We have to have everyone in—you’ve got to have skin in the game. Everybody’s got to have skin in the game in order to pull ourselves out of this fiscal mess that we’re in. It is right for government to assist those in need. In fact, I think it’s not just a right, but a moral obligation. And it’s conservative because it’s part of the church.
PW: Let’s talk voter ID. It was a huge issue last year. It’s still legal in Pennsylvania, even though they won’t be enforcing it in the next primary election. A lot of people have called voter-ID laws racist, because they claim it will stop African-Americans from voting and stop Democrats from getting elected.
Spence: This is true.
PW: You believe that’s true?
Spence: It’s true. Because you’ve got to remember, up until the 1940s, Afro-Americans were not allowed into a general hospital. They had to go to a strictly a black hospital or get delivered by a midwife. If the midwife didn’t keep any records, you don’t have a record of that birth ... At least 50 percent of [African-American] senior citizens that are living don’t have a real birth certificate or don’t know where their birth certificate is. Because, if you’ll remember, in 1956, the Philadelphia Hall of Records caught on fire, which eliminated a whole lot of people’s birth records. So how is that fair? If they’re already registered to vote, then you should give it to them for free. Then they have a valid license. If they were born in these United States then they should have that. Because that’s their constitutional right.
Mansfield: I disagree. When I was homeless, I had two pieces of ID on me. I had my driver’s license and I had my welfare ID card, which is the picture ID. If I didn’t have that card, I couldn’t get food stamps, I couldn’t get cash every two weeks. So, for our elders who are able to obtain their proper ID, all those people who are so concerned about them—instead of carting them out to press conferences, you should have went with them to the Department of Vital Statistics, or went with them to the DMV and stood in line for them, until they got their spot in line, and then helped them get their picture. I agree that if we’re going go require people to have ID, you ought to make it as easy as possible for them to get the ID. But I also agree with the general premise that if you walk into a voting booth, I need to know that you are who you say you are. Now, in criticism of the Voter ID law, it doesn’t stop someone from going to another voting booth or polling place and voting two or three times. It doesn’t stop that. It doesn’t stop the back end, when they’re writing names and voting for people who didn’t show up. It doesn’t stop that. But if I have to get ID to go into a bar ...
Harris: Even City Hall. I have to have ID.
Mansfield: Even City Hall. I have to have a picture ID, to see my city councilman. I have to have a photo ID when I get on an airplane. When I cash a check, I have to have valid ID. To open a bank account.
Spence: Three IDs for that.
Mansfield: I understand that there are people who have an impediment to getting their ID. Well, let’s stop making it an impediment and an excuse and let’s start trying to help them and get them ... If the NAACP were so concerned about this, set up a time when we can get state Reps. to come out for requests for birth certificate and vital statistics and all that other good stuff. But I agree with the general premise of the law, but it doesn’t stop all the fraud.
PW: The way the law was passed in Pennsylvania, though, it did not make it easier for people to get ID. Should they have passed it the way they passed it?
Harris: No. We knew that two things were coming up: One, the presidential election, and two, the governor’s election. We knew that was coming. So why would the governor push a voter ID bill to minimize a specific population to vote, stop them from voting?
Mansfield: The timing was bad.
Harris: If they had came to any of us—any of us—and said, this particular time, going against President Obama, a black man, “I think you’d better change—”
Spence: “Hell no.”
Harris: “You gotta chill on that. Not now.” But what they did was, they didn’t even include us or anybody in their decision-making realm to even ask us what they think. So when it came out, I started laughing. Do you really think that we would struggle through slavery, carrying bags, talking about “We Shall Overcome” and all those kinds of things, that a little voter ID issue would have actually stopped our people from registering or going out to get it? I laughed at that because I knew unequivocally that we move by emotion. You think you’re going to take something from black folks, that’s when we become their worst nightmare. And I knew we were going to be a nightmare on Elm Street, because only a fool would think that black folks wouldn’t go out and do what they need to do when they think their rights have been threatened. That was the dumbest move.
Mansfield: You have veterans here who fought for that right to vote. I was in Iraq when the Iraqi people were voting. Matter of fact, they had to show ID to get into their polling place, and as they were leaving their polling place, they stamped their hand with a purple stamp. Bad timing. I think the Republican Party did themselves a disservice by bringing that bill up. They should have waited until all these elections were over to bring that up and vote on it.
PW: Was it particularly difficult in 2012 to represent the Republican Party during a hotly contested race against the nation’s first African-American president?
Harris: I mentioned in my last interview [with PW during the 2012 presidential campaign], and I’ll still say it again, I love Obama. I think it was great that he’s an African-American person who’s made it to the level of being recognized as being the first black president. I also loved and respected Mitt Romney, because he went through enough hell. People don’t know that when you run as a candidate the abuse you get and the struggle it is in carrying your family, trying to run a campaign. He didn’t have to do it. He struggled, so I have a high respect for him.
Mansfield: Remember what Paul Ryan said, during an interview when he was first selected as the vice-presidential candidate. He said, “I think it’s cool that we have our first African-American president.” That was coming from a Republican vice-presidential nominee.