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‘We’re supposed to be Democrats’: Black Trump supporters in Philly on why they back the president

For Trump, achieving even a marginal increase in black support in 2020 has become a mission. But it won’t be easy.

Rev. Todd Johnson, 56, of Northwest Philadelphia, inside First Immanuel Baptist Church. Johnson hosted a recent event for fellow black Trump supporters at his church. “I didn’t vote for Trump because he was polite, I didn’t vote for him because he was politically correct,” Johnson said. “I voted for him because I thought he would get results."
Rev. Todd Johnson, 56, of Northwest Philadelphia, inside First Immanuel Baptist Church. Johnson hosted a recent event for fellow black Trump supporters at his church. “I didn’t vote for Trump because he was polite, I didn’t vote for him because he was politically correct,” Johnson said. “I voted for him because I thought he would get results."Read moreTyger Williams / Staff Photographer

The Rev. Todd Johnson’s parishioners in North Philadelphia deal with gun violence, poverty, and a lack of affordable housing — much of which he blames on Democrats who have controlled the city for decades.

“I support Donald Trump not because he’s perfect but he’s a Republican and I believe in Republican ideology," Johnson said. "I believe in smaller government. I believe the government should get out of the way and let the free market do what it does.”

Johnson also wants to see abortion rights scaled back. He’s economically conservative and he believes in expanding charter schools to give parents more options for their kids. So when Trump’s campaign needed a place to host an event focused on increasing support among black voters in January, Johnson gladly volunteered First Immanuel Baptist on Ridge Avenue.

“Not everybody in North Philly is a Democrat,” Johnson said. “We have multi interests just like every community does.”

For Trump, who won 8% of black voters nationally in 2016 — a slight increase compared with Mitt Romney in 2012 but still an exceptionally low number — achieving even a marginal increase in black support in 2020 has become a mission. Trump and his campaign have started making high-profile pitches to African American voters.

During the Super Bowl, the campaign aired an ad featuring a woman whose son had been released from prison, thanks to a criminal justice reform bill Trump signed. And in a reality-show-like moment during his State of the Union address last week, Trump announced a scholarship for a Philadelphia fourth grader as part of an attack on what he called “failing government schools.” The Inquirer later reported she actually attends one of the city’s most desirable charter schools.

» READ MORE: Trump used Philly girl’s story to attack ‘failing government schools.’ But she’s at one of the city’s most desired charters.

Black Trump supporters interviewed over the last month in and around Philadelphia cited a number of reasons for backing him: the bipartisan criminal justice reform package, jobs and the economy, and abortion restrictions, as well as legislation creating “opportunity zones” to spark development in poor urban areas.

Trump won Pennsylvania by fewer than 44,000 votes, or about 0.7%, so even a slight increase in black support could help him win it again in 2020, when the state is expected to play a similarly decisive role. According to exit polls, Trump won 14% of black male voters in Pennsylvania, but just 1% of black female voters.

Growing that support will be an uphill battle. A Washington Post poll in January found that 8 in 10 black voters think Trump is racist, while three-quarters of black adults said Trump’s actions have been “bad for African Americans.”

And even the support Trump’s campaign highlights isn’t always as advertised. A national political action committee, Black Americans to Re-Elect the President, had 35 donors from Pennsylvania in 2019. The Inquirer confirmed identities for 18 of them, all of whom were white. Black Americans for the President’s Agenda, a separate PAC supporting Trump, also has many wealthy white donors.

Trump has also driven some black Republicans away. James Williams, a former GOP ward leader who changed his registration to Democratic in 2018, said he’s one of at least four African American Republican ward leaders who have abandoned the party since 2016.

“The local Republican Party is now, it’s cultish," said Williams, who is volunteering with the Democratic presidential campaign of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "If you’re not with Trump, then you’re not a Republican.”

At the event at First Immanuel Baptist last month, about 40 people listened as Harrison Floyd, executive director of the Black Voices for Trump coalition, kicked off the event. “I think a lot of us in the community hear: ‘We’re not supposed to support this president. We’re Democrats, we’re supposed to be Democrats.’ "

The campaign was criticized recently when affiliated nonprofits started offering cash via a raffle to people who attended Trump events in predominantly black areas. Philadelphia’s gathering did not involve any giveaways.

Calvin Tucker, chairman of the Philadelphia Black Republican Council and a ward leader, is running to be a national convention delegate for Trump in Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary.

This week, Tucker circulated petitions in the city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 7-1. Tucker is also traveling around the state as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.

“I’m telling folks that we need to reach out and we need to talk about the accomplishments, and that’s how we bring folks in. It’s not personality-based, it’s performance based," Tucker said.

Trump’s strategists believe his best pitch to black voters — like to all voters — is the economy. Unemployment among African Americans is down almost 3% since 2016.

Yet his track record also includes reports he has used the N-word in private, describing African nations as “s--thole countries,” and defending as “good people” some of the white supremacists involved in a deadly clash in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

Trump’s black supporters address the Charlottesville example, one of the most widely condemned of his presidency, in various ways.

“We all have the right of freedom of speech,” said Orteil Gay, a supporter and pastor in Philadelphia. “I don’t necessarily agree with what they were saying or how they went about saying it, but they have a right to be ignorant.”

Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, dismissed the idea Trump could expand his support with African Americans. He riffed off Trump’s appeal to black voters four years ago, when Trump asked, “What have you got to lose?”

“The ranks of the uninsured among African Americans in Pennsylvanians dropped by over 50% because of the Affordable Care Act," Perez said. "So what’d you have to lose in Pennsylvania? Your health care and potentially your life.”

Trump “was one of the founders of the birther movement ... a president who is enabling hate and division," Perez said, referring to the false conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. "African Americans understand ... a president who doesn’t have their back.”

While political divisions are high in most every community in 2020, mixing in race and support for Trump as an African American, and it becomes even more fraught, Johnson said.

Johnson has a Trump Make America Great hat that he hardly ever wears. He declined to wear it for a photograph taken for this article.

“I wanna be taken seriously and I’m not sure certain people will be able to get past the hat," he said. "If I go out tonight and I wear the hat, there are some restaurants who will not treat me as nicely, people on the street who will holler some expletives. The hat, wearing it as an African American, it takes courage, but it can also be more divisive than it is worth it.”

At the Black Voices for Trump event in January, James “Bo” Cole Jr. walked into the church, curious why people were gathering on a Thursday night. A registered Democrat and retired city worker, he recognized several of his neighbors.

“This is affecting me right now,” Cole, 69, whispered. “This is people I see every day, smiling in my face but at the same time they’re stabbing you in the back? And then tomorrow morning they’ll be walking down the street smiling in your face again?”

Asked what he thought about Trump, Cole said: “He’s a racist. He’s a racist and he’s dividing the country. I’m not a billionaire. I’m not a millionaire. That’s who’s profiting."

Cole stayed for the first 20 minutes and then quietly slipped out the back, shaking his head.

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.