Greenville, S.C. — Brian Bledsoe, an African-American trucker, drove from Grapevine, Texas, to this conservative stronghold of South Carolina to support Ted Cruz in the days before Saturday’s primary.
Bledsoe did so without the blessings of his parents, although a week ago they began speaking to him again about politics for the first time since 2008, when he voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama for president.
Being an African-American conservative can be challenging, he said, but Bledsoe said he felt at ease at the inaugural Conservative Convention, where thousands of like-minded Republicans were galvanized by almost 20 speakers — including Cruz, Ben Carson and Fox News host Sean Hannity, among others — in their quest to take the White House come November.
“When you’re a black man, deciding to be a conservative is a big thing that you take seriously,” he said. “You have to put a lot of thought into it. I examined all sides of the issues, listened and read everything, and there was one party I felt spoke to my values as a born-again Christian. Before I found God, I didn’t care. I just voted Democrat and kept it moving. I was apathetic. But that’s changed, and Cruz is the candidate who I have supported for years now because of his beliefs on important issues — abortion, immigration, national security.”
That support stunned and disappointed his parents. “It took seven years for me to hear my father let the words, ‘Ted Cruz,’ come out of his mouth,” Bledsoe said. “And that was just last week. As for friends, I lost a lot of them when I told them I was a (born-again) Christian. Then when I went Republican, I lost much of the other half. But I still have friends who are totally opposed to my decision. But I don’t even think about the other side (Democrats).”
Supporters of all the GOP candidates swarmed the upstate area and settled in at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday night. The event had the feel of a festival, with exhibit tables of GOP or conservative paraphernalia circling the concourse of the facility. Parents brought their kids as young as 8 years old.
“Why not?” asked David Leftridge, whose 12-year-old son, Dave Jr., wore a Ben Carson button. “We have a long way to go to turn more African Americans (into conservatives), and we can start with the next generation. I’m not going to force my son; he will make up his own mind. But I want him to be informed and to not vote Democrat just because he’s black.”
Dennis Fairburn, 35, wore a Marco Rubio t-shirt that afternoon in Anderson, about 20 miles south of Greenville, where Rubio, U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Governor Nikki Haley all espoused conservative values.
“Tim Scott is African American, like me, and so I’m not the only one,” Fairburn said, laughing. “This is conservative country. The issues that need to be addressed to turn the country around are what conservatives are about. Like Marco Rubio said: ‘We have to return to the values that made us great. Fifty percent of the people in one poll said the American dream is dying.’ We can’t have that.”
Scott, the popular South Carolina senator, said proudly: “We have one of the most conservative delegations in the country.”
But for every one black conservative there seemed to be at least 100 “traditional conservatives.” At Mutt’s BBQ in Easley, between Anderson and Greenville, Cruz held a one-hour rally that was swarmed with hundreds of supporters.
“He’s the one Republican who is truly conservative and consistently talks about conservatives’ values, like erasing big government, protecting the border and strengthening our military,” Ella Downey of nearby Mauldin said. “Yes, there are African-American supporters, too, which is good. It shows the message is getting through.”
In downtown Greenville before the rally, Peter Tilly handed out Donald Trump bumper stickers to those who passed by the billionaire real estate magnate’s local headquarters on Main Street. Tilly dedicated eight days to volunteering to support Trump.
“Trump’s Christian values is 85 per cent of it for me,” Tilly, who owns a marble and granite business in Fayetteville, North Carolina, said. “And he wants to take back government and give it to the people. It doesn’t bother me that he doesn’t have any experience because no one is prepared to be president. That’s just how big the job is.”
Down the street, at Trio restaurant, chef Mike Brown and some of his co-workers engaged in intense conversation on politics and the primaries. He said he originally supported Rand Paul and then Carly Fiorina, both of whom ended their campaigns.
“Now, it’s Trump,” Brown, 30, said. “He’s the one I disagree with the less. Many of us are tired of politicians. He’s not of the political establishment. I’m not beholden to any party anymore. I’m supporting the best candidate. But it does bother me, as a white man, that neither of them aren’t talking much about the need for prison reform or this war that’s going on against young black men.”
That concerned Genevieve Brown, too, a senior citizen who attended the Rubio rally “to see if he would address that issue and the issue of social security,” she said. “He didn’t address either and, as a black woman, that’s alarming. It’s scary times. There are people, seniors, who own a home but can’t afford repairs on it. And how are you going to help the disenfranchised?
“I’m checking out all the candidates to see and hear where their head is on these issues and education and economy and health care. There is a lot at stake, and people died for me to have the right to vote, so I want to use it wisely, regardless of what party.”