Is anyone really surprised that Mississippi's Republican governor, Haley Barbour, dismissed the importance of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation in honor of Confederate History Month that conveniently forgot to mention slavery? Barbour told CNN's Candy Crowley that for people outside Dixie, the old times there should be forgotten. Asked if Gov. McDonnell's omission of slavery in his proclamation was a mistake, Barbour responded: "Well, I don't think so … I don't know what you would say about slavery, but anyone who thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing—I think it goes without saying … to me it's a sort of feeling that it's just a nit. That it is not significant. It's trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly."
I'm not surprised. From my first contact with Barbour as a young black Republican in 1994, it's clear to me that he has always had a big problem dealing with race. After all, this is the Haley Barbour who attended a rally sponsored by the Council of Conservative Citizens (a 21st-century update of the "White Citizens Councils" of the Jim Crow era) during his 2003 run for governor to support segregated "academies," set up so white children would not have to attend integrated schools. This is the same Haley Barbour who proudly proclaimed last week that he is a "fat redneck" with "an accent." This is the same Haley Barbour who wore the emblem of the Mississippi confederate flag on his lapel when his state legislature contemplated changing it.
I first met Barbour in the hallways of the Republican National Committee when I was an intern in the Office of General Counsel and he was chairman of the Republican National Committee. I was an idealistic law student at the time and was there to write a paper about the GOP's somewhat surprising role in promoting and supporting the gerrymandered districts that ultimately led to their huge congressional victory in 1994. I wrote Barbour a nice note and asked to have coffee with him sometime to discuss how we could attract more blacks to our party. Mark Acton, who was a deputy counsel at RNC, pulled me aside and told me I was not to do such a thing ever again—apparently Michael Hess, the RNC's general counsel at the time, was angry that I went "over his head" by sending the chairman a note. I am not sure what Barbour thought, but he never met with me after encouraging me to do so.
I learned more about how he dealt with black folks and black issues later that year, when I was a young staff counsel for Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey. I was asked to call the RNC's chief counsel on behalf of my boss, New Jersey's secretary of state (who was a black woman). Barbour told me again through his assistant that if I or my boss had any questions he could speak directly with Gov. Whitman and not us.
The rude response to my official call really incensed me, so I wrote a private letter to Chairman Barbour, (I CC'd some of my mentors in the party like Jack Kemp, Ed Meese and Gov. Whitman) asking him to please consider that in a pivotal election year, to treat blacks within the party and outside of the party with such disrespect should not be tolerated. I also obtained two letters of support written by two other black Republicans who had worked in high-level positions at the RNC. Both of these men now work for Democrats at the state and local level because of how they were treated by the GOP, despite 20 years of loyal service.
I'll never forget this event (and yes, I still have all the correspondence in a locked file), because all three of us were blackballed by the party and had to leave New Jersey and come to Washington and Virginia to find work.
My point: The Haley Barbour you are all getting to know now is one that I met some time ago. Sadly, if he is the face of the GOP going forward—I am afraid that blacks and independent white voters will not give the Republican Party a second look—not now, not ever.
Sophia Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root and is now registered as an independent voter. She is completing a book.