The Republican presidential candidate makes his case to black voters, trying to tap a deep vein of conservatism that runs through the African American community.
“We Democratic people. We don’t deal with Republicans,” said Eddie Francis, 70, sitting a block from Sylvia’s, under a white tent, where from a table he sold avocados, mangos, and bananas outside a laundromat. “Being a black Republican make it worse.”
Carson has recently surged in the polls, and he holds second place, behind Donald Trump, among likely Republican caucus goers in Iowa. But in black communities like Harlem, he is very much an outsider.
“This has to become of a trend,” said John Burnett, an advisor for the New York State Republican committee, who helped organize Carson’s meeting at Sylvia’s last week with about two dozen business, religious, and community leaders, mostly black and Latino, affiliated as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, “to bring Republican candidates to an iconic symbol of black American culture, which is Harlem. We need the full political process at work to empower black America.”
Still, Sylvia’s was as an unlikely campaign stop for Carson’s campaign and its brand of conservative politics, both of which have largely resonated with white evangelicals. Carson did not visit Harlem to raise money; his campaign picked up the check at Sylvia’s. Carson came to bring a message, to talk directly to liberal blacks who tuned out of the debates and coverage, and would never entertain the thought of voting Republican. He came to try to put his shared black experience over his political ideology. By breaking bread and shaking hands in an urban black mecca, he also put his Republican opponents and Democratic candidates on notice that he still holds a place in the heart of the black community.
Inside the banquet hall, black and white photos of stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Gordon Parks decked the pumpkin-colored walls. White linens and single red roses dressed the round tables. The sweet smell of soul food magnetized security staff and interns. Carson, 63, dressed in a gray suit and red tie, sat next to Candy, his wife of 40 years, and chatted over bites of fried chicken, collard greens, and three-cheese baked macaroni. He sipped water instead of the signature uptown iced tea. Reverend Vernon Williams, the pastor of Perfect Peace Ministries of Harlem, who works with at risk youth in the neighborhood, offered an opening prayer, thanking God for Carson, his legacy, and the message he was about to deliver.