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Ben Carson Campaign Looks To Attract Black Voters In GOP Primaries


In this country, let's ask if the presidential campaign offers Republicans an opportunity - an opportunity to win more black votes. The GOP share of the black vote is extremely small. One question is whether that could change because they have a prominent black candidate - Ben Carson. In a debate this week, Carson specifically raised the concern of black unemployment. We've called Ron Christie, whose book "Black In The White House" chronicled his time in George W. Bush's administration. Welcome to the program.

RON CHRISTIE: Thank you. It's nice to be with you this morning.

INSKEEP: Good morning. What is Carson's appeal to black voters?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Dr. Carson is really, truly the American dream when you look at his story. He grew up dirt poor, raised by a single mother in Detroit. Went on, of course, to go to Yale, went on to become a very prominent neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University, considered one of the brightest minds, frankly, in medicine of his generation. And so I think his inspiration - not only just to black Americans, but to all Americans - is the fact that he has proven that if you work hard and that you stay on the straight and narrow, that you really can achieve the American dream.

INSKEEP: And let's remember - there've been plenty of questions about the details of the story Carson has told, but even if you took the worst-case scenario, it's extremely compelling story. Can black votes matter, though, in Republican primaries, as he tries to get the nomination here?

CHRISTIE: Well, absolutely. And, you know, you certainly have to take a look at someone like the Republican governor of Ohio, John Kasich. John Kasich, in his re-election, got 27 percent of the black vote, so it proves that Republican politicians can appeal to African-Americans, can solicit African-American votes and can win them. The question is how do you go about doing? And in my view, it's you don't treat people like black people. You don't look at them based on the color of their skin. You look at them as individuals. You look at them as Americans who want to get ahead, Americans want to provide for the safety of themselves and their family in this very tough economic time and as those who want to achieve the American dream. So rather than just saying we've got a black problem, let's say of a voting bloc problem, and how do we fix it?

INSKEEP: And there is a problem there - is there not? There's something that Republicans have done that have turned off black voters. Is that fair to say?

CHRISTIE: I don't think so. I think, quite conversely, the Democratic Party has been very successful in saying if you want government handouts, if you want government support, if you want government in your life, you should be a Democrat. I think Republicans and their zeal for stressing personal responsibility and economic freedom have forgotten that there is a significant portion of Americans who do need help. And we need to recognize a better way of communicating, of - we're here to provide a safety net for you. But rather than of a handout all the time, we want to put a hand up, to lift people up and to give them a greater sense of freedom and opportunity.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about one other thing. Ben Carson did say in the debate the other night he was concerned about black unemployment. But he's been much criticized for his comments on raising the minimum wage, specifically. Earlier this year, he said the wage probably should go up. In the debate Tuesday, he said it should not go up, that that would actually cost jobs. Fact-checkers have questioned that. But Carson even said wages should be lower so there could be more jobs. What is in that argument for people worried about poverty?

CHRISTIE: Well, if you look statistically of those were on minimum wage, you factor the folks who are in high school, people who are in low skill jobs who are transitioning to a better-paying job. Voters in Portland, Maine, and across the country have rejected the notion of raising the minimum wage to $15 because they believe that it will stunt economic growth and creativity there. So I think there's a notion that, yes, wages need to rise, but arbitrarily setting a wage at, say, $15 an hour, I think many economists would say, would have a negative effect on job growth.

INSKEEP: Just in about 10 seconds, though - do you think that Carson himself knows what he wants on this issue?

CHRISTIE: I think his thoughts are evolving here, but to be a strong presidential contender, you've got to know the answer of a critical question like that.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. Christie, thanks very much. Enjoyed talking with you.

CHRISTIE: Absolutely - a pleasure.

INSKEEP: Ron Christie is the author of "Black In The White House: Life Inside George W. Bush's West Wing." He is also the CEO of Christie Strategies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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