Wearing the Republican uniform – the ubiquitous dark blue suit and red-on-red striped tie – Dwayne Sawyer stands before Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson, ready to take his oath of office as Indiana state auditor.
It’s a familiar scene for Gov. Mike Pence’s appointee, who on Jan. 10, 2009, became the first African-American to hold elected office in Hendricks County when he became president of Brownsburg’s Town Council.
At an Aug. 19 ceremony at the Indiana Statehouse once again led Sawyer to another first: first Black Republican to hold a statewide office. The 47-year-old Purdue graduate fills the post vacated by Tim Berry, who was appointed chair of the Indiana Republican Party.
Sawyer said faith, family and education, rather than race, are the values that led him to the Republican Party.
“I care about personal responsibility, economic development, job creation, better schools and communities and creating a better place for our children and grandchildren,” he recently told the Indianapolis Recorder. “The Republican Party stands for and works toward those goals every day.”
Sawyer and former City-County Council candidate Sahara Williams are among the newer faces of Indiana’s Black Republican tradition.
Republicans, in general, have come onto the radar of voters recently with the partial closing of the U.S. government amid breakdowns in negotiations between House Republicans and Senate Democrats on the budget and debt ceiling. That divide is expected to resurface early next year when the temporary fix put in place last week expires.
“The skirmishes taking place on the national level, unfortunately, tend to define the politics of the day. But here in Indiana, the Republican Party has a strong history of creating jobs, building better schools and making sure we don’t pass on debts to our children and grandchildren,” Sawyer said.
“The national back-and-forth has done a good job of warping what Republicans stand for and it’s important that we put the yelling and screaming aside and just talk. We all care deeply about what kind of future we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.”
The conflict on the national stage somewhat mirrors the fractured relationship between Black Democrats and Republicans in Indiana.
Writer Jamelle Bouie of American Prospect asserts that though more African-Americans are Democrats, the more successful route to higher office, including that of governor and the U.S. Senate may be through the Republican Party.
Though he professes to be 100 percent focused on his current job, Sawyer may be an example of the benefits of African-Americans who ally themselves with the Republican Party.
Black Republicans typically succeed because they have white voter bases, but Sawyer denies that his interests are any different than those of Black Democrats.
“I think we all have the same major interest and that is to make Indiana the best state to live, work and raise a family. And that, as a statewide office holder, is my top priority,” he said. “I serve each and every person living in our great Hoosier state. We may not all agree on every issue, but after all, who does? Still, I believe we can – and should – engage in a constructive dialogue about the future of our state and the nation.
“I look forward to being a part of that effort because I believe that a dialogue between people, even those who may disagree on issues, is important to the future health of our state. The paths we prefer may be different but our goal remains the same.”
Following the 2012 elections, many said the Republican Party was growing increasingly out of touch with minorities and would lose ground as the nation becomes browner.
“This perception is widely held by some, but it’s not so cut and dry,” Sawyer insisted. “At the local level there are plenty of examples of just the opposite. Mayor Greg Ballard has proven how important it is for candidates and elected officials to earn the support of minority communities by attending events, being an active neighbor in and around the city, listening to concerns and working to provide workable solutions.
“The Republican Party in Indiana is working hard to engage in communities around the state that maybe haven’t seen a Republican in a long time.”
Like many African-American Hoosiers, Sahara Williams, 37, grew up in a family that usually voted Democratic.
“I think they have been Democrats, generally; kind of default democrats, kind of the way most Black people that I know are,” the Cleveland, Ohio, native said.
But emptying out her savings, maxing out five credit cards and borrowing money from her mother to become a business owner in 2008 led Williams to think of her political affiliations and community service goals more strategically. Today, she describes herself as a “right-of-center fiscal conservative and a social moderate or libertarian.”
“If you are going to be successful in business, you need to know what policies work,” the owner of Enginuity Engineering + Management said. “I looked at the logic behind things, not just the emotion behind things . . . . You have to question, is this really right, is the result of this right?”
Williams said though many see the GOP as the party for business and the Democratic Party as the champion of social needs, there’s really no difference in the responsibilities of leaders from either party.
“If you look at civil rights organizations, when you look at what they say they want, there’s a disconnect in how you get there,” she said. “Black voters have looked to the Democratic Party and its way of combating social ills for decades without appreciable results.”
“We need to shift the balance of what’s sustainable,” she said. “Maybe it’s time to try something different. Maybe doing the same thing and having the same result is not the answer.
“But you have to accept that someone is thinking and trying to solve a problem in a different way doesn’t mean they don’t have a different goal than you.”
Sticks and stones
Still, Black Republicans are received less than enthusiastically by African-American voters, said Williams, who often is on the receiving end of unflattering names when people discover she’s a Republican.
In some ways, she said, it would be easier to stay behind the polling curtain as a Black Republican and keeping one’s political affiliation to oneself than to be called a “race traitor.”
“You can take the easy route out and just say you’re a Democrat,” she said. “It’s not an easy path. The people who choose it choose it because they believe it.”
Culturally, it’s acceptable for non-Republicans to put down Black Republicans, Williams said. It’s a form of Black-on-Black discrimination, she added.
“If the same comment was made from a white person to a Black person or from a straight person to a gay person, that would not be acceptable,” she said.
The costs are real for some who break away from the Democratic Party to join the Republicans, Williams said.
“You do have instances where people can’t get work any more as a result of trying to participate in the political process,” she said. “I even know a man who had to file bankruptcy just because he said he was a Republican.”
Williams said one of the deepest cuts came from the dean of Black community journalism, Amos Brown, who to her recollection, said Black Republicans “are colored but not our kind.”
“The people who say those things care more about their party than they do about their community,” she said. “Talk about voter intimidation; that’s voter intimidation.”
But Brown said the only criticism of Republicans he recalls was specific to an African-American senator from South Carolina.
“She does not know whether I scratched or not in a general election,” he said. “There have been general elections where I’ve split my tickets.”
Brown also has endorsed Republicans like Jackie Cissell.
Though he admits many other Black Hoosiers may have problems with Black members of the Republican Party, Brown said he believes Williams may be too new to the Central Indiana political landscape to understand the historical arena in which he has worked.
Black Republican values
When Brown arrived in Indianapolis in 1975, the Republican Party was very strong, with leaders like Joseph Slash and the late Rev. Charles Williams going to work in Mayor William H. Hudnut III’s administration a few years later.
“Yes, they were Republican, but they stood up for what was in the best interests of African-Americans as a whole,” he said. Those Black Republicans, he said, believed in affirmative action, business and community development, and improved education.
“Those were values of Black Republicans here in the city. They were visible. They were out in the community. And people perceived those Black Republicans were on the side of the community.”
That doesn’t appear to be true today, Brown said.
“What’s different today is the environment is more polarized,” he said.
In particular, there appears to be the impression among younger Black Republicans that the administration of Mayor Greg Ballard is better to African-Americans than that of former Mayors Hudnut and Richard Lugar, Brown said.
“In my view,” he said, “they can’t back that up.”
For instance, Brown said he’s repeatedly asked for statistics that track dollars spent by the city with African-American-owned businesses. But city officials say they don’t track that.
Brown said they should and that it shouldn’t be difficult since they keep track of minority-owned and women-owned companies that provide products and services to the city.
Even in a traditionally red state, it’s taken nearly two centuries for a Black Republican to hold statewide office. If they can convince the largely Democratic Black community to cross the aisle and pull their lever, it may not take as long to perform this feat again.
Not your great-grandfather’s party
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one. So were civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and author Zora Neale Hurston.
Each was a Republican.
But the Republican Party of the Reconstruction era and early 20th century was not the party it is now. Many would say the more accurate understanding of the parties is whether they are federalist or anti-federalist.
Abraham Lincoln, clearly was a federalist, exerting the power of the U.S. government to bring the rebel states of the South into line.
But today’s Republican Party, with its message of smaller government, clearly is an opponent of Lincoln-style federalism.
Until the 1920s, African-Americans in Indianapolis more often than not were members of the Republican Party. In fact, the original Ku Klux Klan members were Democrats of the South, making it unlikely African-Americans would join that party.
But according to the late historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan within Indiana’s Republican Party in 1924 drove voters toward the Democratic Party.
Evansville, where lawyer Ernest Tidrington was named chairman for the Colored People of Vanderburgh County and appointed head of the Colored Bureau of the Indiana Republican Party, also was solidly Republican.
Even in Gary, three Black Republicans were elected to the City Council in the 1920s.