Election 2004  
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Out To Punch

From manslaughter convictions to boxing promotions, spiky-haired Don King has always been a hustler. His latest hustle: Republican pitchman.
 
 
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Don King is a hustler who rose from the depths of a manslaughter conviction to the heights of boxing promotion by dint of a well-honed ability to play the angles. So, it's really no surprise that King has thrown his lot into the reelection campaign of George W. Bush; he's playing the angles.

The Bush team's embrace of King is surprising, however. But embrace him it has. The spiky-haired boxing promoter has been accompanying Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie on an "Economic Empowerment" tour across the country, trying to convince African-American audiences that Bush's reelection is in their best interest. In the last few weeks, the tour has visited Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania and is planning stops in several so-called battleground states.

"People understand that George Walker Bush is the man with the plan to make America better," King said at a stop in Philadelphia. And then, using a line from a stump speech he repeats at virtually every location, he said, "Sometimes, just sometimes, it ain't too bad to be in the Bushes." That line is the flip side of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's warning for Americans to "stay out of the Bushes."

More substantially, King argues that Bush has appointed four blacks to important positions — Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Education Secretary Rod Paige and HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson — and that Bush "utilizes the big stick." He told Jada Yuan of New York metro.com, "If he wasn't in that White House when we had the despicable attack of terrorism in New York, I shudder to think, I tremble at what would be happening."

The tour is part of a larger effort by GOP leadership to increase the party's share of the black vote. Gillespie, who long has urged his party to more actively seek the black vote, is in the forefront of those efforts. "We want to do better than the nine percent that President Bush got in 2000. I'm confident we can do that,” Gillespie told Black PressUSA.com . “The president has done a lot to reposition the party and reach out to African-American voters.”

Gillespie argues that Bush's policies have empowered African-American entrepreneurs and small business owners and he has organized the empowerment tour to highlight those policies. He says King approached him with a plan to reach out to black voters and he decided to take his advice. "Very few people have been more successful in marketing and promotions as Don King has been in our country, Gillespie said. "He helps us - no pun intended - punch through with our message, and one that resonates with African-Americans."

The RNC chairman's so-called outreach efforts are nothing new. For the last 25 years, the GOP has sought to cultivate new black leadership to supplant the left-leaning cadre of traditional black leaders. The tactic reached public notoriety in the early 1980s, when a young Congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich publicly argued against trying to appeal to traditional black leadership. "It is in the interest of the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan to invent new black leadership, so to speak. People who have a belief in discipline, hard-work and patriotism, the kind of people who applauded Regan's actions in (invading) Grenada."

King apparently is one of those invented black leaders suggested by Gingrich, who incidentally remains an influential GOP strategist. King is best known for his wild hair, his "only in America" mock patriotism and his shady dealings in the disreputable boxing business. That public image and his prison record make him an odd pitchman for a law-and-order administration with a solid base on the Christian right. "What's next for the GOP?" one Republican blogger asked, "a photo-op with OJ?"

Perhaps the Bush administration's success with picking external leadership for Iraq has convinced it that picking King as a black leader just might work. In fact, this mindset may also have infected Illinois Republicans, who drafted Maryland's Alan Keyes for a Senate run against Illinois Democrat Barack Obama. Since Obama is African-American, GOP leaders reasoned, they could oppose him best with Keyes, one of their African-Americans.

Maybe the corporate mania for outsourcing has inspired Bushites to look beyond the shores of political propriety, as it were, by seeking an unlikely advocate like King. Whatever the reasons may be for enlisting King, the Bush campaign has chosen a man who has developed a reputation for skullduggery. It's a well-earned reputation: He shot a man to death in 1954 in what was ruled self-defense; he was convicted of manslaughter in 1967 for beating a man to death. Ohio governor James Rhodes pardoned him for that crime, however. Since his release from jail, he's been indicted on federal charges of tax fraud and racketeering, but never convicted. He also survived three grand jury investigations, though they took a toll on his already tarnished image.

Moreover, he has been sued by several of the fighters he promoted – including Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. For many in the black community, King's pseudo-eloquence and exaggerated affability come across as mere hustler affectations; he is seen as little more than an amusing oddity. If nothing else, his choice reveals just how tone deaf the GOP is to the tenor of the times in black America. It's likely they've noticed the hip-hop community is gearing-up to get out the vote against Bush and they figured someone as flamboyant as King could serve as an appropriate counterweight. "After all," one can hear them thinking, "he is ghetto fabulous."

When King gets to Florida to stump for Bush, he should reflect on that state's disenfranchisement laws, which would bar him from voting were he an unpardoned resident. And which unjustly barred several thousand black men from voting in Florida in the 2000 election according to Greg Palast's book, the Best Democracy Money Can Buy.

Although they're as clueless as usual on the cultural nuances of black America, these Republican leaders are serious about their efforts to pull as many black votes as possible from the Democrats. They know that if they lose the black vote by as large a margin as they did in 2000, the Democrats will get a much larger boost in the battleground states. In addition to King, the Republicans are likely to enlist other prominent blacks to push their cause so we probably should expect a slew of strange bedfellows.