Telly Lovelace is not stepping into an easy job. Not that it’s ever been easy to work on African-American outreach for the Republican National Committee, but things haven’t been this bad for the Republican Party since Kanye West called out George W. Bush. Likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump is anathema to African-American voters, the entire black outreach staff quit over the last six months and the Republican National Committee has cut its outreach offices from 12 to seven since 2015.
Taking over black outreach in 2016 for the Republican Party is like being tapped as the interim coach on a losing team: You’re set up to fail. However, none of this deters Telly Lovelace as the new head of African-American outreach for the RNC. He’s got a plan, goals and passion for the GOP. The question is, does he have enough time to make it all work?
Lovelace is the epitome of the Generation X black Republican. His first campaign was in 1990, when, at the age of 14, he was knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature for Maurice Turner’s mayoral campaign. One of the few African Americans to ever be chief of police in Washington, D.C., Turner ran as a law-and-order Republican in the wake of Marion Barry’s drug conviction.
“Even when I was in high school, black people didn’t really understand being a Republican,” Lovelace says. “My teacher told me, ‘Really, Telly, baby, are you sure?’ when I handed my voter registration form to my teacher and I had marked Republican.”
Lovelace went on to the University of Maryland, and after he graduated, worked for corporations like eBay and on various Republican campaigns. He was most recently at IR+Media when he got the call from RNC Chair Reince Priebus.
“This is a crisis,” Lovelace admits.
Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, former head of African-American outreach, had just left the job in mid-March, leaving the Republican Party with zero black people to manage outreach in an election year. She’d been preceded by the three other members of GOP African-American outreach, and the party was facing a public relations nightmare in addition to a structural one. That made Lovelace a top choice. While he certainly has his critics, Lovelace is known around Washington, D.C., as a “fixer.” GOP insiders believe that desperate party Chair Priebus knew that Lovelace could get in, hold down the fort and get out after the November elections.
“My goal here in coming into this position is to build off of the work that they [previous RNC African-American staff] accomplished. I thrive off of campaigns,” Lovelace says when asked if taking over the work of four staffers was a no-win situation. “If we can get more African Americans to listen to the Republican Party on platform and issues, maybe [black voters will realize] the Republican Party isn’t as bad as the media and other folks say they are.”
In recent years, the majority of African-American voters haven’t simply rejected Republican presidential candidates out of party loyalty to Democrats; there are a few hot-button issues driving them away that, as the new head of Republican African-American outreach, Lovelace would be responsible for addressing. One such issue is the spread of voter-ID laws, especially since the Supreme Court stripped Section 5 from the Voting Rights Act. Lovelace is refreshingly honest about these laws and how to address them.
“There have been instances of white Republicans [seeing] these voter-ID laws as a way to suppress the black vote,” says Lovelace. “I believe it’s my job coming in as African-American outreach director to right those wrongs.”
He cites Shamed Dogan, a black Republican in the Missouri state Legislature, who has proposed free state IDs, as an example of how African-American concerns about voter ID can be addressed while the issue is still pushed.
Lovelace’s goals are pretty extensive. He wants to increase the African-American vote for the Republican presidential nominee to George W. Bush-level numbers (9 to 11 percent) instead of the recent John McCain and Mitt Romney numbers (4 to 5 percent). He plans to work with local African-American candidates, and he wants to expand the Republican Leadership Initiative to move more African Americans up within the national party to positions like communications director and polling. He also wants to create a comprehensive list of all African-American Republican elected officials across the United States, something that, shockingly, has never been done before.
All of this sounds pretty ambitious for a guy who admits that he’s working for the Republican Party only for 214 days, and has every intention of leaving right after the November election to continue his work at the IR+Media P.R. firm.
“I feel like I’ve got the weight of my people on my back. I can’t do all this by myself,” says Lovelace. “I want them [the GOP] to be more competitive because that will make the Democrats get on their A game—which helps African Americans. Democrats take African Americans for granted, and the GOP has ignored us.”
If Telly Lovelace’s goal is to make the Republican Party a viable competitive option for African-American voters this fall, he certainly has the skills, experience and passion to make that happen. One can only hope, for the sake of black voters and a healthy democracy in general, that after several months of losing staff and cutting costs, the RNC will actually give him the kind of structural and financial backing necessary to make his goals a reality.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.