For the second time since the Civil War, Florida voters have elected a black Republican to the statehouse. The Republican Party is hoping Mike Hill’s victory in his Panhandle district will help improve the party’s image statewide.
Mike Hill founded the Northwest Florida Tea Party a couple years ago. In a recent special election, the first-time office holder carried about 58 percent of the vote in the Florida House district that includes Pensacola. Hill is an Air Force veteran who owns an insurance agency. And he’s a publicly devout Christian who said, he’ll consider biblical morals when deciding how to vote in the House.
He said, most people in his district share his values.
“The voters decided that they liked the conservative message of limited government, low taxes, personal freedom and individual responsibility,” he said.
But, unlike the vast majority of Republicans, Hill is black. He follows former Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll as the second black conservative elected to the Florida statehouse since the end of slavery.
But, though he recognizes the historical significance of his win, he said, race is never primary in his mind.
“The character to do what’s right, even in the odds of forces that don’t want you to—to me, that’s the most important thing, not what my color is,” Hill said.
But chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Lenny Curry, sees Hill’s race as a marketing opportunity.
“It certainly helps us in terms of our brand and our need to connect with certain communities,” Curry said.
Despite Republican gains among young, white voters in recent years, during the 2012 election, just 6 percent of African-American voters picked Republican Mitt Romney. And the Pew Research Center says, just 2 percent of Republicans are black.
Curry said, starting this summer, the Florida Republican Party will be partnering with the national GOP on a long-term strategy aimed at winning over minority voters in Florida.
“It is basically putting folks into communities that are of the community, that literally represent the community, and beginning to build a level of trust and understanding. And doing a lot of listening,” he said.
In very recent history, Florida has seen the election of black conservatives Hill, Carroll and U.S. Congressman Allen West. But Professor Darius Young, who teaches history and political science at Florida A&M University, said, that should not be mistaken for an indication of an overall trend among African Americans.
“Clearly you can just look at the last election,” he said. “I think, it’s not gonna be this awakening. The Republican Party has not done anything, hardly, to sway African Americans to vote for them.”
He said, black people have voted heavily Democratic over the last century, especially after Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson championed the civil rights movement. And, he said, President Obama’s election has only reinvigorated the African American community’s political fervor.
What Young does see as a trend, he said, is Republicans thrusting black candidates into the spotlight to paint themselves as more inclusive.
“But I think clearly, we’re more politically astute as a people than that, and that we don’t make our political decisions just because we have someone that looks like us,” he said.
Curry said, the Republicans are hiring a full-time African American outreach director. And he plans to reach out to Mike Hill to see if he’ll help with that effort.