Let me tell you about that time I joined the Republican Party as a young-black-male-public-defender during the Obama-era. When I was 18, I started off as a registered Democrat and voted for the first time in the mid-’90s. It was the most grown up thing I had ever done. But over the years, I felt like my vote didn’t count for much. Nothing changed and I grew frustrated with the political system.
Around 2009, I had a long conversation with the Mecklenburg County Republican chairman. He was a fellow lawyer who cared about local politics and, with the recent election of President Barack Obama, felt that an opportunity existed to change his party.
“What if we could get the right wing and the left wing to work together?” he asked. “The bird could soar to new heights,” I whispered. But I didn’t think it was possible. “How can Charlotte rise, if only one political party cares about people of color?” He responded with a challenge: “Help change that.”
Changing the Mecklenburg Republican Party meant that I would have to become a Republican. But why not? If this worked it could help Charlotte. Plus, several of my heroes were Republicans. My grandfather, a WWII decorated veteran who got injured saving other men, was a freedom-fighter and a Republican. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father was a Republican and so was Abraham Lincoln.
So I did it. And my first stop was at the Black Political Caucus banquet. I was met by the Democratic Party chairman, who stripped the welcoming mat from underneath my feet. He stood at the podium and viciously roasted Republicans. I was introduced as the new, first-ever MeckGOP Minority Outreach Chair. Crickets. I literally heard crickets from the parking lot outside. Unperturbed, I explained that my goal was to improve local politics by increasing diversity in the MeckGOP.
Over subsequent months, my efforts yielded a return. People of color joined the party, got involved and some even ran for office. Things looked hopeful. But over the years, the national Republican agenda backfired, there was pushback on diversity and the Donald Trump factor exploded. The racist and hateful rhetoric of a few Republicans stymied any growth that the party was having and several horrific policies from Trump’s administration sent us back to a time where people of color were second-class citizens. Although many local MeckGOP folks did not endorse these hurtful tactics, their silence let it go unchallenged. I looked at my children and did not want to explain to them why I was on the wrong side of history. So I left the Republican Party in February 2017.
I’ve wondered what my grandfather would think about my decision. Sadly, he died before I was born. But I’ve always wondered what he would think about America today. About Republicans, Trump, veterans, and Colin Kaepernick. Especially Kaepernick. Would he say that he served so that Kaepernick could exercise his right to protest police-related killings? What about Kaepernick’s public decision not to vote because it wouldn’t make a difference?
I’m not sure what my grandfather would say. But I think it was wrong for Kaepernick not to vote. It’s not about Trump. It’s about the system. Listen, we must focus less on Trump and more on the system that produced him. Otherwise, the system will produce another Trump. You may never switch political parties or take a knee but the only way most of us will ever change the system is through voting. So do your part – vote. Early voting is under way. Vote.
Romain is an assistant public defender. Email: Toussaint.Romain@