Responding to criticism over his statement that he doesn’t “want to make black people’s lives better with other people’s money,” Rick Santorum said that far from holding negative views about African-Americans, he worked closely with black former congressman J.C. Watts and former RNC chairman Michael Steele, and was a champion of black colleges when he was a United States Senator.

It was the kind of statement that caused many black Americans to shake their heads. But for Santorum’s supporters, it was a genuine statement by a man who practiced real outreach to African-Americans in his home state.

After a stint in the House from 1991 to 1995, Santorum served in the Senate from 1995 until he was defeated for re-election (by 18 points) by Bob Casey Jr. in 2006. According to Santorum, during his Senate tenure he “used to bring all the historically black colleges into Washington, DC to try to help them, because they get very little federal money through the bureaucracy, and so I help to try to introduce them to people in the Department of Education so they could have more resources.”

There are two historically black colleges in Pennsylvania: Lincoln University and Cheyney University. And while the current president of Lincoln was not in place during the time Santorum was in the Senate and therefore the university declined to comment, the leadership at Cheyney University says he did help the college.

“One of our [alumni] and current council of trustees, Robert Traynham used to work in [Santorum’s] office, thus we did have a direct path to his office through Mr. Traynham,” said Eric Almonte, a spokesman for Cheyney University, in an email response to theGrio. “In addition, he was instrumental in helping us secure federal appropriations, in particular, he partnered with former Senator [Arlen] Specter to support our Aquponics Research and Education Center, where we grow fresh basil in tanks of water where tilapia fish swim underneath. The basil is currently sold at local produce markets and serves as a strong public private venture with Herban Farms, LLC. In addition, he served as keynote speaker at the University in either 2005 or 2006.”

Traynham (who is also a contributor to theGrio) has continued to be a strong supporter of Santorum, defending him against charges of anti-gay bias, and characterizing Santorum as a principled conservative, and “a person of deep conviction and a person of extraordinary worth ethic.”

“J.C. Watts and Rick Santorum decided to do a HBCU summit where they brought all the presidents to D.C. for a day to meet with them and other members of congress, the education secretary and staff, to engage in a daylong dialogue,” Traynham said. “That first summit, maybe had 20 people show up.” Traynham said the success of the first summit prompted him to suggest the Senator make it an annual event.

“So for the next six years, every single year we brought the HBCU presidents to D.C. to talk about policy initiatives and how we could get money to them and the whole nine yards.”

TheGrio was able to find announcements about the fifth and sixth annual HBCU forums, dubbed the “Historically Black Colleges Congressional Forum.” One write-up describes Watts as having established the forum in 1999, and lists Santorum as the “lead host and sponsor.” It describes the forums this way:

Attendees participated in discussions on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, funding sources for comprehensive projects to improve the teaching of science and engineering, and a session on legislative resources available to HBCUs. The forum has helped provide the opportunity for HBCU presidents to learn the latest about what the federal government can do to help schools achieve their goals and increase their capacity to meet research, academic and faculty development needs.
Among the speakers who addressed the presidents were Watts, U.S. Education Department Secretary Dr. Roderick Paige, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Alphonso Jackson, and Senate Majority Leader William Frist, R-Tenn.

The write-ups indicate that by the sixth forum in 2004, attendance by college presidents had increased to over 75.

”[Santorum] had a significant and deep interest in the lives of all students, but also HBCUs because of their unique history,” Traynham said. “And because Cheyney is the oldest HBCU (founded in 1837), and because it was in the most financial trouble and because I was an alum, he took a unique interest.”

Traynham said the funds Santorum directed to the school helped to “maintain the campus” but also went “directly into the classroom.”

That could come as a surprise to Republicans who view Santorum as a small government conservative, opposed to federal government spending on things like education.

Former RNC chairman Steele says Santorum’s outreach was genuine, but also necessary for a party with few inroads into the black electorate.

“Santorum recognized that the party efforts at outreach weren’t working,” Steele told theGrio. “He took it upon himself to find a strategy that would reach into these communities.”
Steele said the approach of isolating discreet parts of the community, rather than reaching out to African-Americans in general, is preferable for Republicans “because the broader outreach tends to come under fire, and individuals tend to shy away from it because they don’t want to deal with the noise and the heat.”

Those glowing portraits of Santorum stand in sharp contrast to the recollections of Lacy Wheeler, Esq., a longtime member of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference and currently the organization’s legal redress chairman.

“Former Sen Rick Santorum had a very limited relationship with the African-American community, so his comments are very much ill advised,” Wheeler said, saying Santorum “has never reached out to the African-American community and his statement about welfare leads one to believe that he thinks the majority of African-Americans are on welfare, which is not the case.”

Wheeler says he is offended by what he calls the use of “code” by some Republicans during the presidential nominating process, which he says is designed to devalue the black community.

Wheeler called Santorum’s statement about “other people’s money” an “obvious swipe at the African-American community once again to put that community down as if that community only wants handouts.”

And Wheeler is unimpressed by Santorum’s citation of his work with Steele and Watts.

“When Rick Santorum refers to JC Watts who’s out in Oklahoma, or Michael Steele who was former RNC director but he’s in Maryland, these are individuals who are not even in the state of Pennsylvania,” Wheeler said. “So for him to suggest that these individuals hold him in high regard, that falls on deaf ears here in Pennsylvania.”

Wheeler is not the only Pennsylvanian to hold that view.

Bev Smith, a longtime television host who was a fixture on Black Entertainment Television when it launched, and who went on to host a nationally syndicated radio program on American Urban Radio Networks, says Santorum was invisible to black Pennsylvanians when he was a Senator.

“I don’t know anything that Rick Santorum has done in the African-American community here in Pennsylvania,” Smith told theGrio. “That does not mean he hasn’t done anything. But I haven’t seen it. The only time that I have really seen Rick Santorum is when he’s out politicking, and then he spends his five minutes in the community and then he disappears.”

Smith said she was invited to a meeting Santorum held with black media and community leaders in 2008, but that when she explained to him that she was supporting Barack Obama for president, and refused to meet with Santorum one on one, she never heard form his office again.

Beyond that, Smith said she sees Santorum’s efforts to gain points for outreach he did years ago, which were barely publicized at the time, as self-serving.

“My concern is that every time a white politician runs for office on the Republican side, they pull out their ‘I Love Negro’ card. And you can quote me on that,” said Smith. “But this is a new day. This is 2012 and if you claim it, we’re going to hold your feet to the fire.”

The fact that prominent black individuals and organizations often identified with Democrats (thought he NAACP is non-partisan, conservatives see its positions as liberal) are unaware of Santorum’s efforts aren’t surprising. The meetings were partisan, at least in the first four years, according to Traynham, with only Republican members of Congress attending. But Traynham says that once the forum was opened to Democrats after the fourth year, Santorum’s office got no response from across the aisle.

Steele said it made sense for Santorum to limit the meetings to Republicans, because “if it’s about helping your relationship with African-Americans, it’s a little tricky to do that with Democrats in the room, who are going to counter everything you say.”

Whatever their success, the attempts to woo black college presidents are reminiscent of efforts by Republicans, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, to communicate to discreet groups within the African-American community that were thought to be more open the party’s message — such as business, faith and academic groups — rather than trying to compete with Democrats in a dialogue with the community at large.

Even Newt Gingrich, whose caustic comments about low income people, including implying that all African-Americans are on welfare, once toured the country with Rev. Al Sharpton, touting educational initiatives, with President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan.

Santorum during his Senate term, seemed to be trying to tap into that same vein.

But political scientist David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who has studied the black electorate for decades, said the outreach effort that Santorum, and former Sen. Bill Frist of Tennesee participated in, are vestiges of a Republican Party that no longer exists.

“Over the past 20 years, there have been to varying degrees, efforts made to attract African-Americans” to the GOP, Bositis says. “Some more serious than others.” Bositis cites both Presidents Bush, former Congressman Jack Kemp, and politicians like John Danforth, as having cultivated closer personal relationships with black Republicans like Condolleeza Rice and Colin Powell (the Bushes) and black figures like Justice Clarence Thomas (Danforth.)

But Bositis says it’s unlikely today’s Republicans would try the Santorum approach.

“You have to put it in context,” Bositis says. “The Republican Party of today is way more conservative than the party has been in the past. Even more conserve than when Reagan was president. Really the base of the Republican Party now is southern white conservatives and rural people, neither of whom really appeal to African-Americans.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport