The first black Republican to win a House seat in two generations comes to Washington with an agenda closer to that of Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich than his 24 black colleagues across the aisle.
Gary Franks, a city alderman from Waterbury, Conn., opposes tax increases, supports the death penalty and says he won't vote for any civil rights bill that contains even a hint of racial quotas. His Nov. 6 election victory over liberal Democrat Toby Moffett in Connecticut's 5th Congressional District makes Franks the highest-ranking black elected Republican in the country.Franks, who is touring Capitol Hill this week for a series of orientation meetings, says he's ready to join the 24 Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus.
"I qualify. I'm black and I'm a congressman," said Franks, a 37-year-old real estate developer. "I'm a fiscal conservative Republican and I think that in itself will offer a difference between me and the some 25 members of the caucus."
He will be the caucus' only opponent of this year's civil rights bill and the lone advocate for a brand of conservatism aggressively opposed by many other caucus members.
"He will be one voice that will essentially be, in terms of voting, ineffectual," said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a Washington think tank that focuses on black political issues.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says Franks won't attract support by waving the conservative Republican banner.
"We hope that he is not used by the right wing to sing the praises of their position," said Edward Hailes, a lawyer in the NAACP's Washington office.
But the Republican National Committee does plan to enlist the freshman lawmaker as a magnet for black voters.
"He'll be a national spokesman for the party," said Charles Black, the RNC's chief spokesman. "He'll be a great example for us to recruit other blacks to run for office and to draw black voters into the Republican Party."
Franks says his first loyalty will be to his district. Nevertheless, he says, "I would like to do all that I can to help my national party and I will do so if time allows."
There has been no black Republican in the House since Illinois Rep. Oscar de Priest stepped down after three terms in 1935. The last black in the Senate was Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who was defeated in 1978.
Brooke represented the then-healthy liberal wing of the Republican Party.
But Franks describes himself as "a real conservative and a real Republican."
Observers say that could be a problem when it comes to recruiting blacks to the GOP fold.