Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addressed the annual NAACP convention Wednesday in Houston, where he pitched his candidacy as the best choice for African-American voters, including his opposition to marriage equality, a principle the organization recently backed.
“Any policy that lifts up and honors the family is going to be good for the country, and that must be our goal,” said the former Massachusetts governor in his first appearance before the group. “As president, I will promote strong families and I will defend traditional marriage.”
The speech marked a rare mention of the marriage issue, which the businessman has largely avoided on the campaign trail in favor of economic themes. Firm applause could be heard from the audience, despite a vote by the NAACP’s board of directors to endorse marriage equality in May.
“We are pleased that Governor Romney addressed our convention today,” said NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock in a statement following the speech. “This morning Governor Romney laid out his policy agenda for this nation. Unfortunately, much of his agenda is at odds with what the NAACP stands for – whether the issue is equal access to affordable health care, reforming our education system or the path forward on marriage equality. We appreciate that he was courageous and took the opportunity to speak with us directly.”
Marriage equality opponents have sought to “drive a wedge” between gay people and African-Americans, two key Democratic constituencies, as revealed by internal memos from the National Organization for Marriage unsealed in a federal lawsuit in Maine last March. The divisive strategy, which also targeted Latinos, appears to have failed for the most part, with recent polls showing a surge in support among African-Americans since President Barack Obama announced his personal support two months ago.
In addition to the NAACP, two leading Latino civil rights groups, the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), have endorsed marriage equality since the president’s announcement. Black leaders including Jay-Z have also expressed support, and Frank Ocean last week became the first major hip-hop or R&B artist to publicly acknowledge a same-sex relationship.
As expected, Romney dedicated the bulk of his 20-minute speech to the economy. He promised to reform education and create jobs for African Americans, who face a 14.4% unemployment rate compared to 8.2% for the general population.
The audience politely applauded the proposals, but loud boos ensued when he pledged to “eliminate every non-essential, expensive program I can find." He singled out “Obamacare,” the health care reform law that the Supreme Court upheld in a highly anticipated decision last month.
“If you want a president who will make things better in the African-American community, you are looking at him,” said a defiant Romney to jeers. “Take a look.”
“While we are glad that Governor Romney recognized the power of the black electorate, he laid out an agenda that was antithetical to many of our interests,” said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. “His criticism of the Affordable Care Act – legislation that will improve access to quality health care for millions – signals his fundamental misunderstanding of the needs of many African Americans.”
President Obama will not address the NAACP convention this year. Vice President Joseph Biden will deliver keynote remarks on Thursday, the final day of the annual meeting.
"I just hope the Obama campaign doesn't think you're playing favorites," joked Romney about the lineup. He mentioned polls that show 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats and said that in making his case, he hoped to represent Americans of “every race, creed or sexual orientation."
Log Cabin Republicans, which has not yet endorsed in the presidential race, applauded the candidate for his “inclusive tone” but criticized his “gratuitous attack” on marriage equality.
"With his opening remarks to the NAACP today, Governor Romney sent a message that he recognizes the importance of an inclusive Republican vision for victory in November. He deserves credit for taking the step to include sexual orientation by name," said R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin Republicans executive director. "That said, it is unfortunate that he countered his outreach to gay and lesbian Americans with a gratuitous attack on the freedom to marry. If Governor Romney truly desires to represent all Americans, Log Cabin Republicans encourages him to avoid divisive social issues and focus on jobs and the economy."
Watch the video of Romney's full remarks to the NAACP convention.