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Bush hosts leaders of faith-based organizations in Austin

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Returning to the "compassionate conservative" theme that was the mainstay of his White House bid, President-elect George W. Bush on Wednesday hosted a gathering of leaders from faith-based organizations in Texas.

Viewed as part of an effort to reach out to black Americans who voted overwhelmingly against him on Election Day, Bush planned to discuss administration plans to encourage faith-based groups to provide social services for the poor, aides said.

CNN's Bill Delaney reports on Rev. Eugene Rivers and his message (December 20)

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Presidential Transition

A number of African-American and Hispanic religious leaders were to attend the afternoon event event at First Baptist Church in Austin.

"This is not a political meeting," Bush insisted. "This is a meeting to begin a dialogue about how best to help faith-based programs change people's lives."

The Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman and charter-school proponent who heads a large black church in Queens, New York, was among the African-American ministers invited to the gathering.

Flake has been mentioned as an outside contender for the secretary of education post in the new Bush cabinet.

Also among those expected to attend are Rev. Eugene Rivers, leader of the faith-based Ten Point Coalition in Boston; Dr. Tony Evan of the Dallas-based group Urban Alternative; and the Most Reverend Joseph Fiorenza, president of National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bush's effort is viewed as renewed effort to reach out to African-Americans -- though not by traditional means. Well known African-American civil rights leaders, most notably the Rev. Jesse Jackson and NAACP President Kwesi Mfume, strongly backed Vice President Al Gore in the presidential election and remain angry about what they view as the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida.

Bush and Jackson spoke briefly on the telephone after last week's landmark Supreme Court decision effectively halted manual recounts of certain ballots in Florida, but relations between the two men remain frosty.

Rivers, who told CNN that he backed Gore during the presidential campaign, said it's time for fellow African-American leaders to give the Texas governor a second look.

"Now there must be a new conversation in the black community that says we now must come to terms with a political fact of life, which is President-elect George Bush," Rivers told CNN's "Inside Politics" on Tuesday.

"Bush has a strategic opportunity to build bridges that transcend the limitations of the authorized leadership, who frequently dominate the discourse, and don't allow new and fresh voices to emerge," Rivers said.

Among the campaign themes that Bush will likely highlight during Wednesday's gathering are plans to offer a $500-per-person tax credit for individual contributions to charities, and the loosening of federal regulation of groups that can provide social services with government grant money.

The president-elect has also been a strong advocate of making private school vouchers more readily available for children who attend failing schools, as well as increased funding for prisoner rehabilitation and drug treatment programs.

But Bush was stung by a poor showing among African Americans on Election Day, who voted 9-to-1 in favor of Gore. In Florida, there is lingering bitterness among African Americans convinced that Bush's opposition to manual recounts was aimed at disenfranchising their community, a traditional bedrock of Democratic support.

"They are angry, they are disappointed, they are disgusted, and they feel cheated," Rep. Carrie Meek, a Florida Democrat, recently told CNN.

A number of black lawmakers also remain skeptical that his presidency will be able to distinguish itself from past Republican administrations viewed as out of touch with the African-American community.

A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicated that only one in five blacks believe that Bush will work hard to represent their views.

Bush recently made moves to erase those perceptions by making two African-Americans his first Cabinet selections: Colin Powell as secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice and national security advisor.

Associated Press news material shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium.


Wednesday, December 20, 2000



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