GOP's Dawson Questioned on 'Whites Only' Club

ABC News' Teddy Davis and Ferdous Al-Faruque Report:

 

South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, left, discusses issues of concern to minorities on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.Ferdous Al-Faruque/ ABC News

South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, a candidate to head the Republican National Committee, was questioned Tuesday by the former national coordinator of African-Americans for Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign about Dawson's recent resignation from a country club with a whites-only policy.

C.J. Jordan, a former McCain aide who serves as president of the National Black Republican Leadership Council, was one of several people who took part in a Q-and-A session with Dawson, 52, and two other candidates for RNC chair at the Washington, D.C., offices of Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Jordan told Dawson that as a state party chairman, he has a "great track record in South Carolina" on racial inclusion.

After saying positive things about his record, Jordan asked Dawson how he could "take that one issue the media has put out there" -- his resignation from what she dubbed a "members-only white club" -- "as your welcoming message to us when you go out to the broader community."

Dawson called scrutiny surrounding his 12-year membership in the 80-year-old country club with a whites-only deed as "a challenge" but, in a lengthy answer, he said that he was prepared to answer questions about it, citing the way his family conducted its auto-parts business as well as his record on diversity issues as state party chairman.

"It's campaign election time inside the Republican National Committee and certainly my competitors have tried to drive that home," Dawson said. "That was an issue that started early on in the McCain-Obama race to be very divisive in South Carolina while we were running a campaign. When I saw that was going to be a divisive issue, I resigned. I moved forward. And, again, I have a solid record of electing minorities in South Carolina, promoting principles, funding and doing things that you should do.

". . . So I moved past," he continued. "I saw it, I tried to correct it, I moved past it . . . and the exciting part is I get to talk about our successes when they ask that question because we're a very open, inclusive party, we are.

"And no matter how they try to label us," Dawson added. "And the media is never going to be the Republican Party chairman's friend, let me assure you of that. I think if it is we'll probably have done something wrong. Because there is a bias out there. But we're willing to deal with that and we have before.

"So, I thank you," he continued. "It's my record, I will stand on what my family has done for a living and we're in the auto parts business. We have always been fair. It's interesting, my No. 1 person who immediately took up for me was the head of the [South Carolina] Legislative Black Caucus. [He] came and said 'I know Katon Dawson, and it's the furthest thing from the truth.' The next one was the chairman of the state Democrat Party, the chairman said, 'This is bogus and phony, I know him, I know where he lives, I know what the character is, I know how he conducts himself.' And so, I found it a challenge because my competitors and other people want to use it against us but I'm prepared to answer that along with any other question with what we've done in South Carolina."

Dawson buttressed his argument that he has built a more inclusive South Carolina Republican Party by pointing to his efforts on behalf of Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American woman elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Dawson also cited Tim Scott, the first African-American elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives since Reconstruction, as well as Glenn McCall, the first African-American to represent South Carolina on the RNC.

Dawson resigned his membership in the Forest Lake Country Club in Columbia, S.C., in September. He began working to change his club's admissions practices in mid-August after learning about the whites-only deed in The State, a South Carolina newspaper.

"I understand the deed is unconstitutional," Dawson told The State. And, on a personal level, he said, the "deed is unacceptable."

Dawson was not the only RNC chair candidate courting conservatives who belong to minority groups at Tuesday's event. Joining him were Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis and Chip Saltsman, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party who managed Mike Huckabee's presidential bid.

Three other RNC chair candidates -- current RNC chairman Mike Duncan, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell -- did not participate in Tuesday's back-to-back Q-and-A sessions.

The next RNC chairman will be chosen at the end of this month by a majority vote of the 168 members of the RNC. The roughly two dozen participants in Tuesday's discussion, which included African-Americans, Hispanics, Indian Americans, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and others, are not voting members of the RNC.

But since they are all conservative activists who play on-going roles in helping the GOP reach into minority communities, the RNC chair candidates who met with them did so in the hopes that they would lobby their allies who are voting members of the RNC.

The discussion was moderated by Suhail Khan, a conservative activist who sits on the boards of the American Conservative Union, the Indian-American Republican Council and the Islamic Free Market Institute. Khan convenes regular meetings of conservatives who belong to racial, ethnic and religious minority groups.

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