By Larry Peterson
Robert Donaldson wore nice slacks, a Brooks Brothers shirt, a striped tie, a cashmere sweater, and Johnson & Murphy boots.
The tall black man joined Lis Overton, who chairs the Chatham County Republican Party, at an upscale Skidaway Island club.
Donaldson, one of the vice-chairs, drew quizzical stares from white bar patrons watching an America’s Cup yacht race — and from the mostly African-American wait staff.
“It’s uncharted territory,” said Donaldson. “No one knows quite what to make of me. It’s a weird duality.”
So, perhaps, are the Chatham Republicans these days. A bit like the old ad about new Buicks, they’re not Daddy’s GOP.
Since May, Overton has used her gifts for chatting up and pulling people together in a local effort — soon due to be replicated nationwide — to rebrand the party.
She’s acutely aware that it’s widely spurned among increasingly critical voting blocs: Minorities, women and young people. Together, they’re an overwhelming majority in Chatham — and across the country.
“We’ve let Democrats define us as the party of rich, old white men,” she said. “We have to fight back.”
Even so, GOP leaders concede the perception is partly true and that they need to change it with an infusion of new blood.
Chatham Republicans have diversified their executive board and hope to win favor among a broader segment of the wider community.
“But people have to see us involved in the community before they trust us enough to listen to us,” Overton said.
So the group’s joining efforts to help homeless children and combat crime. There’s also talk of volunteering at local marathons and entering a float in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade.
Trying to lead by example, Overton is a poll worker in a mostly African-American precinct. Asked whether she wanted to supervise, she said she replied, “No, I want to be a worker bee.”
Donaldson, who’s in the recording business and says he’s a “rapper who reads the Wall Street Journal,” concedes winning converts won’t be easy.
“We have to learn to be cool,” he said. “The Democrats had Beyoncé’s music at their 2012 convention. We had Clint Eastwood.”
He hopes to mobilize as fellow recruiters conservative blacks — and whites — who are comfortable in a wide range of settings.
Rachel Dodsworth, another vice-chair who — at 26 — is the youngest executive board member, says she sees progress.
“We’ve had more young people and minorities at our meetings,” she said. “And they’re participating.”
Meanwhile, the group has revamped the monthly First Saturday breakfasts that serve as its regular meetings.
Candidate speeches sometimes dominated them. U. S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss triggered a chain reaction-scramble of 2014 wannabes when he decided to retire next year.
But attendance at the breakfasts was lagging, so the group opted for something different.
Candidates are invited to attend, meet and greet and be introduced — but not to address the gatherings.
“We wanted to devote them to our own business,” Overton said. “We’re focusing on educating our members.”
There have been presentations on local politics, Obamacare, and public school curricula. And attendance is up, Overton said.
“Lots of candidates still come,” she said.
And at least some like what they see.
They include state Sen. Buddy Carter, seeking the seat U. S. Rep. Jack Kingston’s leaving to vie for Chambliss’ post, and state Rep. Ron Stephens, who wants Carter’s job.
“She’s ruffling some feathers,” said Savannah lawmaker Stephens. “The party now looks a lot like me. White, male, middle-aged.
“But Lis knows that can’t be our long-term future. We need to bring people who don’t look like us into our tent.”
Pooler legislator Carter agrees.
“And I don’t mind not getting to talk,” he added. “I get plenty of opportunities.”
Michael Johnson, chairman of the Savannah Area Young Republicans, welcomes the senior party’s outreach campaign.
“We try to work as a feeder group for them, and what they’re doing makes things easier for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve doubled our membership.
“We’re making strides. Our executive board is half women. We have only one board member over 35.”
But University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock views the party’s quest for diversity as an uphill climb.
The huge Democratic advantage among black voters has changed little in recent decades, Bullock noted.
He said it stemmed largely from 1960s’ GOP tactics that attracted whites, especially in the South, but sometimes with racially tinged rhetoric that drove blacks away.
Wooing them back “is a hard sell,” Bullock said.
Even so, he said, Republicans could have a “good shot” at the youth vote.
But they should downplay hot-button social issues such as gay marriage, he added.
“I asked for show of hands in one of my classes from students who are opposed,” he said. “Not one went up.”
Jane Barr, a Savannah College of Art and Design master’s degree candidate, is producing a film about black Republicans.
“They’re making a sincere effort,” said Barr, who interviewed Donaldson and Overton. “But it won’t work if they imply that blacks are in a bad situation because it’s their fault. It might if they say blacks deserve a better situation and here’s how to improve it.”
County Commissioner Helen Stone said Republicans must at least try to reach out to a wider support base if they want to remain competitive.
“We’re missing out on conservatives who ought to be with us,” Stone said. “We need to pull them in. We can no longer afford to live in a bubble.”