Secretary of State addresses GOP

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita (right) chats with Daviess County Prosecutor Byron Overton prior to the annual Republican Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner at the Washington Conservation Club on Thursday---Photo By Mike Myers.

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s secretary of state asked forgiveness Monday for evoking images of slavery in describing black voting trends during a Republican event in southern Indiana last week.

During a Thursday speech at the Daviess County annual Lincoln Day Dinner, Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita said 90 percent of blacks vote Democrat and questioned why.

“How can that be?” Rokita was quoted as saying by Nate Smith of the Washington Times-Herald. “90 to 10. Who’s the master and who’s the slave in that relationship? How can that be healthy?”

A three-minute clip of Rokita’s speech that includes the following quote is available on the Times-Herald’s Web site. Daviess County, according to the U.S. Census, has an African-American population of 1 percent.

Several black lawmakers expressed anger over the remarks.

State Rep. William Crawford, D-Indianapolis, who is black, said Rokita’s statement likened blacks to being ignorant, uninformed and compelled to vote Democratic.

“What compulsion? We don’t intimidate,” said Crawford, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “We don’t buy votes. He needs to apologize to the people he offended, the people that he called ignorant and uninformed, and that is 90 percent of those African-Americans who choose to vote their level of interest as they define it for Democrats.”

Rokita said his message about the black vote was meant to encourage the Republican Party to continue its efforts to diversify, in part by reaching out to blacks.

But, he said, “The word choice that I used in one part of those remarks was poor, and if I offended anyone then I ask their forgiveness for what was an insensitive metaphor.”

Rokita said he had called some members of the black community to ask their forgiveness and explain his overall message. He said friends in the black community told him they knew what he meant.

“I was empathizing with African-Americans of my generation who face political pressure — pressure from inside their community and outside their community — any time they show any kind of individualism,” said Rokita, who is white. “My point was that that’s unhealthy. It diminishes us as a people and it’s something that the Republican Party has a strong history of fighting against.”

Jennifer Fanger, communications director for Rokita, said Monday afternoon the secretary had done several interviews, but did not feel he was misquoted or his quote was taken out of context by Smith or the Times-Herald.

But some black lawmakers were still upset.

“I can’t even begin to fathom what could have been going through Rokita’s mind, to let those words come out of his mouth, especially this close on the heels of the Imus debacle,” said Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary.

Brown was referring to 66-year-old radio legend Don Imus, who was recently fired after calling the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

Indiana has had just one black Republican state representative in the past 25 years, Brown said. James Vanleer of Muncie served one term in 1995 and 1996, which Brown said showed the Republican Party was not reaching out to blacks.

Brown also questioned how many blacks worked in Rokita’s office. The office provided figures showing that there were 50 white employees, two blacks, one Latino, one Indian and two Asians.

Democratic state Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary, chairman of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said Rokita’s comment showed a lack of sensitivity.

“It bothers me that he did not understand some words that excite emotional response, and that is what has happened,” Smith said.

Nate Smith contributed to this story.

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