Calvin Tucker, a GOP delegate from Pennsylvania, talks on MSNBC before the primary.

When Calvin Tucker asked a group of 150 Kingsessing residents this summer how many of them were Republicans, four people raised their hands. Still, the clean-cut, 64-year-old businessman went on to speak to the entire room during an event at a rec center, extolling the views of Republicanism and working to drum up support for his ultimate goal: economic growth.

“Until we change our political habits, your children and grandchildren will be facing the same problems for 20 or 30 years,” Tucker recalls telling the residents. “This is about the survival of our community.”

Today, Tucker is Donald Trump’s surrogate in Pennsylvania. The lifelong Republican was a delegate at the GOP convention in Cleveland. He moderated a small meeting between Trump and black leaders here in Philadelphia last month.

He heads up the Pennsylvania Black Republican Council, and he’s spending his days working to convince African American voters — most of them in his hometown of Philadelphia — why Trump is the candidate for them, despite the presidential nominee’s string of race-related controversies.

The crux of Tucker’s argument to his fellow community members is pretty simple: Urban centers have been run by Democrats for decades. If you want things to change, why not vote for a Republican?

He knows he’s up against a wall. It’s a great wall made of Philadelphia’s massive voter registration gap that remains something like 8-to-1 in the Democrats’ favor. And it’s a wall that separates Tucker from making headway in a city where Mitt Romney won exactly zero votes in 59 voting divisions in 2012.

But in that room in Kingsessing this summer, Tucker wasn’t trying to convert. He knows what he’s up against. He was just trying to move the needle ever so slightly — enough to help him win over who he can.

“I may not have converted 100 percent,” he said. “I may not have converted 1 percent. But I’ve gotten people to begin to think.”

Trump’s surrogate in Pennsylvania

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally. Credit: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Network

Born at 16th and Berks in North Philadelphia, Tucker’s been a Republican all his life. He says that’s largely because his mother was one. She would have been among a group of black Republicans who lived through the age of FDR, well before African Americans started drifting en masse to the Democratic party, who stayed with the GOP after the Civil Rights movement.

Today, Tucker believes it’s Republican ideals that can lift American cities out of poverty.

He does all his interviews at the Corner Bakery Cafe on City Avenue, right on the line between West Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd. He knows people there. Tucker’s usually wearing a clean suit with shining gold cufflinks. And though he represents a candidate known for public outbursts and speaking off-script, that’s not Tucker. He’s calm. He’s thoughtful.

Tucker spent most of his professional life in finance. After going to Lincoln University to study business, he worked in banking. Today he’s a loan officer and owns his own capital advising firm. But he’s spending significant portions of his time representing Republicans — he’s also the chairman of the Germantown Republican Club and the GOP leader in the 22nd ward.

It was in the 1970s when he first got into Philadelphia politics as a committeeman, rising eventually to be a ward leader. Over the years, he was asked on several occasions to run for political office — even for City Council or mayor. In 1980, he ran for a seat in the state House. He lost, and was asked in 1981 to run for City Controller. He declined, and said he never had the couple million dollars needed to run a large-scale campaign.

So Tucker stayed behind the scenes, working and lobbying in D.C. Now, two or three times a day, Tucker talks to reporters from across the state and around the country about Donald Trump. He tells them about Trump’s plan to cut taxes, create millions of new jobs and encourage job training that restores losses felt in places hit by manufacturing cuts.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation says Trump’s tax plan would add 5.3 million jobs, cut taxes by $12 trillion over a decade and lead to 6.5 percent higher wages. But, it notes, the plan would reduce tax revenues by more than $10 trillion over the next decade. In the end, as noted by PolitiFact, Trump’s tax plan would give more to the rich than the tax cuts under former President George W. Bush.

But Tucker feels Trump’s done a better job of reaching out to black voters than Hillary Clinton.

“It’s so important what Donald Trump has done,” Tucker said. “It’s to reach out to African Americans to begin to talk about concerns and issues. So people who had a perception of him in the primary have a different perception of him now that he’s willing to come into the literal lion’s den to talk about those issues.”

That lion’s den, Tucker says, is places like Detroit and Baltimore and Philadelphia, the latter of which Trump visited in September to speak to a room of black Republican leaders in North Philadelphia about creating jobs and reducing crime. (That was the same trip when Trump implied Afghanistan is safer than Philadelphia.) And that was the intimate meeting Tucker moderated.

Black leaders in Philadelphia meet with Donald Trump in September. Tucker is on the far left in the back row.
Black leaders in Philadelphia meet with Donald Trump in September. Tucker is on the far left in the back row. Credit: Via @shawn_bullard on Instagram

But this Republican leader who now lives in Mt. Airy wasn’t a diehard Trump fan from the get-go. During the primary, he supported N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, who he got to know while campaigning in 2014 with former Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who lost his bid for re-election.

Of course, Christie didn’t make it to the Pennsylvania Republican primary. So Tucker, who was running to represent the 2nd congressional district as an unbound GOP convention delegate, became a coveted man. He was aggressively sought after by members of the final three Republican campaigns, being Trump’s and those of Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich.

Tucker was always planning to support the nominee, saying now: “Any of our 17 would be better than [the Democrats’] three. I started off with that premise.”

Ultimately, it was Trump who won. And it’s Trump who Tucker supported at the convention. And it’s Trump who — despite his notably checkered history with race-related issues — Tucker continues to stump for. Even after the release of what’s become known as the “Trump Tapes,” Tucker continues to support Trump, and especially the Republican party, while he’s working in underserved communities.

“I get a lot of people to say ‘oh shit, that’s a different way of looking at politics,’’’ he said. “It’s a personal selection. And it is a community selection.”

Can he make a dent with black voters?

Congressional candidate James Jones, left, with Calvin Tucker.
Congressional candidate James Jones, left, with Calvin Tucker. Credit: Facebook

Philadelphia has not collectively voted for a Republican presidential candidate in decades. Even in Pennsylvania, Democrats lead Republicans in registration by about a million people. A presidential candidate hasn’t won Pennsylvania since 1988, and the last time a Republican won more than 20 percent of the vote in Philadelphia during a general election was in 1992.

In the past several elections, about 3 percent of black voters in Philadelphia have voted Republican in the general. In Tucker’s own 22nd ward in Northwest Philly, Trump won just 57 votes in the primary. Kasich actually won the ward with 67 votes. In the entire ward, less than 200 Republicans cast votes during the primary in total compared to more than 6,000 Democrats.

And in the voting division where Trump met with black Republican leaders last month, he won exactly six votes in the primary.

In July, a staggering NBC News/ WSJ/ Marist poll actually showed Trump was polling at 0 percent among black voters in Pennsylvania. That bears repeating: Donald Trump did not have any recordable support in Pennsylvania among black voters in July.

Some polls — at least those taken before the release of the Trump Tapes — showed that nationally, black voters were turning to Trump faster than white voters. But most showed his attempts to woo African American communities weren’t working. Some said those attempts had a negative impact on his numbers.

Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall pollster, said he hasn’t seen data to suggest a major shift in Trump’s support among black voters in Pennsylvania. The big question in our state, he says, isn’t if Trump can drum up support among African Americans. It’s if Clinton’s camp can engender enough excitement so that turnout levels don’t dip too far below what they were in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ticket.

When it comes to converting black voters in Philadelphia to Trump supporters, Madonna said he’d be “stunned” to find any patterns suggesting such a shift.

Locally, Republicans make up a staggeringly small percentage of black political leadership. The last black Republican to win citywide office was Ethel Allen, an at-large city councilwoman who served in the 1970s. In the state House, Rep. Harry Lewis, of Chester County, is the only Republican lawmaker of color.

Tucker says he doesn’t need to convert enough of Philadelphia to help Trump win the city. That’s not going to happen. He says just increasing that 3 percent number to 6 percent of black voters would make a huge difference statewide. If a candidate doesn’t get crushed in Philly, they might stand a chance in winning Pennsylvania.

But when you’re talking about a city that hasn’t gone Republican in decades, progress in Tucker’s book isn’t necessarily measured by who wins the presidential. “Every day,” Tucker says, “you make progress.”

Ryan Sanders, the African-American Inclusion Director with the PA GOP, said Tucker’s approach of education — not necessarily conversion right off the bat — is the right one.

“My big thing is educating individuals on the actual civic responsibility and the duties of each particular position,” he said. “Not every politician in general is perfect. And I encourage all Americans to research out the candidates.”

How to move the needle

Calvin Tucker, left, stands with former presidential candidate Ben Carson and 2nd congressional district candidate James Jones.
Calvin Tucker, left, stands with former presidential candidate Ben Carson and 2nd congressional district candidate James Jones. Credit: Twitter

Tucker says he doesn’t speak to people in underserved communities about being a Republican in a way that makes it seem like he’s trying to change how they’ve viewed politics all their life. Instead, he says, he thinks of it as working to educate people, one-by-one, on issues he sees as vital to improving cities. Those issues are: Job creation and growth, economic gains and crime reduction.

“The most important thing we can do at this point is to talk to folks, try to persuade people that you need leverage,” he says, meaning not rubber-stamping Democratic candidates for years on end.

But the idea that huge swaths of America see Donald Trump as a racist isn’t lost on Tucker. The Donald attacked a Muslim Gold Star family. He said a judge who ruled against him did so because he was Mexican. When asked to disavow former KKK leader David Duke, Trump floundered. And he famously started the birther argument, or the idea that the nation’s first black president wasn’t born in the United States.

Tucker doesn’t believe that Trump is really a racist. But he says it doesn’t matter — racism isn’t something that politicians can solve. Rather, he believes systemic racism has to be solved “from the breakfast table.” But he says he sees why those “negative attributes” are assigned to the Republican party. The party has in many ways failed to get into inner cities and fight back against negative messaging.

“If you’re never there on average,” he said of his fellow Republicans, “it becomes easy to attribute negative things to you.”

In conjunction with the Pennsylvania Black Republican Council and other GOP groups he works with, Tucker is talking to media and meeting with candidates for down-ballot races. He’s also handing out fliers and knocking on doors. The most important thing he says he can do is work to change how Philadelphians view the Republican party.

To Tucker, it’s about recognizing that decades of Democratic leadership in cities across America, including here in Philadelphia, hasn’t worked for some.

“We can vote for the same politician over and over and get the same results… We have to try to talk to folks and persuade them that we have to begin to do things differently if we want a different result,” he said. “If we want our communities to look different five years from now as opposed to having our communities be dictated by gentrification and urban renewal where we don’t have input… How we get input is we hold our politicians accountable.”

Almost every day, a black voter tells Tucker he or she feels like they can’t vote for a Republican, whether it be Trump or someone else entirely. Or maybe the person just feels like they shouldn’t.

Tucker has a simple answer.

“Why not?”

Anna Orso

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.