South L.A. Voter Says African Americans Need to Think More Broadly About Party Politics

"Black" and "Republican" are two words you don't see in the same sentence very often, especially in South Los Angeles. KPCC's Frank Stoltze has a profile of one South L.A. man who doggedly promotes the Grand Old Party to anyone who will listen.

Frank Stoltze: A sea of white faces fills an airplane hangar at Long Beach Airport, where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is about to speak. Johnnie Morgan stands out.

Morgan: "So what's it like being a black Republican in South Central Los Angeles?" (laughs) It's been interesting.

Stoltze: Morgan grew up near Watts. He graduated from Locke High School in 1969.

Morgan: When I turned 18, my parents said – because, ya know, they're from the south – "You got to register to vote," and I said, "Okay, I'll do that. How should I register, Democrat or Republican?" And they said, "Well, Democrats are for poor people, for black people. Republicans are for rich people and white people, okay?" Now, I never considered myself poor, but I knew I wasn't rich and I knew I wasn't white.

Stoltze: For years Morgan dutifully voted Democrat. But he says he wasn't seeing much change in his poverty-stricken neighborhood. He began to question the Democrats who dominated South L.A. politics, from City Council to Congress.

Morgan: They steadily tried to say that we can't get ahead because Republicans won't let us, and that never worked for me because Democrats were in charge. Yet anything that was going wrong – no economic opportunities, lack of schooling, crime – ya know, it was all the Republicans' fault.

Stoltze: Morgan says Democrats took him for granted – even the late Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who was black. So, in 1982, he joined the GOP.

Morgan: The philosophy that centers around economic development and self sufficiency, the promotion of the free enterprise system, I like.

Stoltze: Fifty-six-year-old Morgan says he was probably a Republican when he took on a paper route as a nine-year-old boy. Now, he owns a business that installs earthquake automatic shutoff gas valves. He's become a political activist and he says the party's treated him well. Former GOP Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to the California Apprenticeship Council. But other African Americans give him grief.

Morgan: They want to know – "What happened to you?" And I let them know first of all this is a two-party system. There is no benefit in all of us being in one party.

Stoltze: African Americans, Morgan argues, need to think more broadly about how to get the major parties to work for them.

Morgan: The Republicans look at our area – it's 80-90 percent Democrat – and they say, "We can't do anything there; they're all Democrats!" So they go someplace else. So we get ignored by the Republican Party, and we get taken for granted by the Democratic Party.

Stoltze: Earlier this year, the Congressional Black Caucus held its spring conference in Los Angeles. Morgan decided to go.

Morgan: I walked in the room. One of my Democratic leaders sees me from across the room and yells, "Johnnie Morgan, what are you doing in here? You're a Republican!" And I told him, "Ya know what, I thought this was a black thing."

Stoltze: Johnnie Morgan's political hero is Democrat Jesse Jackson – because he was the first black man to run for president. At the same time, Illinois Senator Barack Obama strikes him as too liberal. Not that it matters, Morgan says.

Morgan: I just don't think the United States of America is ready to elect a black president.

Stoltze: Democrat or Republican, he says.