Newt Gingrich has been both ally and foe to key black leaders

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When the NAACP released a report earlier this year called “Misplaced Priorities” that urged policymakers to explore alternatives to sending more people to prison, the group found an unlikely ally: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich not only sent a letter praising the report, but dubbed the high incarceration rates in cities like Detroit “a tragedy.”

“Newt Gingrich was one of a small number of noted conservatives… to come out and endorse the report and say it is time to shift from failed quote unquote tough on crime policies to smart on crime policies,” NAACP President Ben Jealous said in an interview last month. He added, “we have fought with Newt Gingrich many times, but on this issue he was courageous.”

Gingrich confronted by black New Hampshire resident for ‘food stamps’ remark

A month later, Gingrich has found himself under fire by civil rights groups, including the NAACP, for saying that if he is the GOP presidential nominee he will go to the NAACP’s annual convention and talk about why “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” The comment was viewed by many as suggesting blacks are overly reliant on food stamps and other federal assistance.

But Jealous’s words last month illustrate the complicated relationship between Gingrich and key black leaders. While the former House Speaker has disagreed with the NAACP and other groups and black leaders on key issues, he has also built some alliances at times.

He spent much of 2009 campaigning around the country for education reform with the Reverend Al Sharpton. The pair also met with President Obama on the issue.

“I had such a great time going around America with you,” Gingrich said when he called into Sharpton’s MSNBC show PoliticsNation to wish Sharpton a happy birthday in October. (Sharpton has also sharply criticized the food stamp remarks.)

Former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts, one of the few African-Americans ever to hold a leadership slot in the House Republican Conference over the last few decades, endorsed the former speaker last month.

But some prominent African-Americans say Gingrich’s work with Sharpton and the NAACP were moves to help the former House Speaker appear more bi-partisan at the time, and the food stamp remarks are more reflective of his true views.

“He has not changed one iota,” said Mary Francis Berry, the former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “What he was doing was strategic image building, which politicians do all the time… don’t be shocked and surprised when he does something that is consistent with the reality of how he is.”

Since the controversy over his remarks, Gingrich has repeatedly defended himself as someone who has sought to build alliances across both partisan and racial lines.

“I mean clearly somebody who’s served with Colin Powell, who has served with Condoleezza Rice, I have a fairly good sense of the fact that African-Americans have made many contributions to America,” he told an audience in New Hampshire on Sunday at a campaign stop.

Follow April Ryan on Twitter at @AprilDRyan