Growing up poor and black, Kofi Montzka considered herself a liberal. But after deeper consideration in college, she concluded that the Republican Party's message was better for low-income people and racial minorities.

Instead of telling those groups that they're smart and equal, she said, liberals send the message that "there's some barrier, so no matter how hard you try there's nothing you can do. … That message is incredibly destructive and terrible."

Now an attorney living in Shoreview, Montzka was among a small group of African-Americans in a mostly white crowd that came to the Hilton Minneapolis on Saturday night to hear a speech by conservative commentator and activist Candace Owens calling for black people to leave the Democratic Party.

In a city with a strong Democratic lean and some of the nation's largest gaps in income and education between whites and blacks, Owens' talk opened a window into the frustrations of black conservatives. As Democrats field a record number of candidates in the presidential primary, Owens and some African-American advocates are challenging whether the party deserves the black vote.

"The left has relied on the minority vote for six decades and given the black community absolutely nothing in return for it," Owens said to a ballroom of nearly 1,000 people at an annual dinner hosted by the Center of the American Experiment, a nonprofit that generally backs conservative causes.

Eighty-four percent of black voters identify as Democrats or lean toward the party. Yet even among Democratic voters, 28% of black people described themselves as liberal compared to 55% of white non-Hispanics, according to the Pew Research Center.

John Hinderaker, executive director of the Center of the American Experiment, said the organization brings in a black speaker each year.

Owens declared in her speech that the biggest problem facing black America isn't racism, but the absence of fathers in families. People can work hard to make something of themselves, she argued, but the left tells them they can't.

"She talks about how she grew up feeling as if she kind of had to be a liberal and … the things that she learned that caused her to change her views," Hinderaker said. "I don't think there's any question that that perspective coming from inside the African-American community is a valuable one."

Race and votes

Owens said that the left launched a war on police officers to secure the black vote in 2016, trying "to seize us emotionally" as videos of black men getting shot to death by cops ran constantly on TV. But that year, Owens said, "as a black man you had a higher chance of being struck by lightning than being shot unarmed by police officers."

"Is it possible that racism is now being used as a theme to turn black people into single-issue voters? … Of course the answer is yes," she said.

Louis Dennard was appalled.

As president of the African-American Heritage Gun Club, Dennard had attended the event with his friend Timmy Christopher as longtime Democratic voters who were disillusioned with the party. Though skeptical of Republicans, they wanted to attend a variety of political events to expose themselves to different ideologies. They raised concerns about how much Democrats care about low-income African-Americans, particularly in north Minneapolis.

But Dennard, who had grown up with the same up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy that Owens promoted, believed that her comments minimized the pattern of black men getting shot by the police. He carries a gun in his pickup truck and doesn't want to get stopped by the cops.

"I don't believe in what she was saying," said Dennard, a resident of Edina. "She was selling out. I don't even think she believes in what she's saying. I think she's making a buck, that's all."

The speaker and social media personality has drawn controversy for comments on Adolf Hitler, nationalism and Black Lives Matter.

But Owens' comments on Saturday resonated with Montzka, who said, "Liberals do not care about black people or they would care about all the black people dying in Chicago instead of only focusing on the minute percent that are killed by cops."

She and some allies formed a group called Exodus to support one another in pushing back on liberal rhetoric on race, with the intention of "freeing blacks from a slave mentality and whites from guilt." That's needed, they say, because it can be isolating for a person of color to espouse conservative ideas.

Other black women who support Owens' message include Oredola Taylor, a St. Paul resident. She became disenchanted after seeing intelligent African-American children discouraged from reaching their full potential in school systems overseen by Democratic interests. There's also Earline McCauley, a Woodbury resident who grew up in Chicago and is dismayed by the high murder rates there and abortion rates in the black community.

Another member of Exodus is Shane Hachey, who grew up poor in Bemidji as the son of a black mother and white father and went on to attend Harvard Law School. Hachey left behind his liberal beliefs in his 20s and maintains that people can be jerks about race, but ending racism is a utopian fantasy and racism isn't stopping him from doing anything.

"Candace Owens' message is 'Look, don't rely on the government to help you … you have the power to take control of your own life,' and I love that," said Hachey, who lives in Bloomington.

Political outreach

State Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, who is Somali-American, said the DFL has given him and fellow black lawmakers a platform to address racial disparities in health care, education, employment and housing.

"Our issues are being championed by Democrats … it doesn't come from the Republican Party," said Noor.

Hinderaker said that conservative political candidates could do a better job of reaching out to black people.

"Sometimes politicians tend to look for votes in the places where they are most likely to get them in the short term and I'd like to see more conservative politicians make a more consistent effort to reach out to minority communities," said Hinderaker.

Christopher also wants to hear more from the GOP.

"The only time the Democratic Party cares about black people is when they need a vote," said Christopher, who is a reverend in north Minneapolis at Berean Missionary Baptist Church. "They shake your hand, they give you a picture and then they run. … Then we sit there and say, 'Where do we go?' Well, we have no place to go because the Republicans never reached out."