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RNC Chair Candidate: We Don’t Take Blacks Seriously


RNC Chairman candidate Michael Steele

Michael Steele doesn’t think Republicans take black voters seriously. Didn’t hear him? He’ll say it again. In a November interview with the Washington Times, the chairman of the 31-year-old Republican training outfit GOPAC claimed that Republican leaders “don’t give a damn” about blacks. At last week’s debate between Steele and five other candidates for Republican National Committee chairman, Steele, almost unbidden, accused his party of “rolling out” black members as tokens, for media consumption.

“We’ve had this conversation for 15 years,” Steele said after the debate, “about bringing black folks out. Well, do it. Don’t just talk about it. Do it.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

This is the voice of experience, of a black politician whose rise in the Republican party’s constellation was almost as rapid as President-elect Barack Obama’s rise to the White House. It’s also the voice of frustration. When he broke into national politics six years ago, as the first black lieutenant governor of Maryland, Steele became the leading voice in a now-quaint Republican strategy: to paint the Democrats as a backwards party that took black voters for granted. On the campaign trail, on TV news, and at non-partisan functions like NAACP dinners, Steele would argue not just that Democrats had let black America down, but that Republicans would, finally, court their votes. At the same time, he would reassure white voters that the days of bloc black politics led by racial hucksters was sputtering to an end.

“African-Americans are doing something that the Republican Party has asked them to do,” said Steele in an October 2004 appearance on Fox News, responding to a poll showing almost a fifth of black voters hesitating about a vote for John Kerry. “Don’t give your vote over to the Al Sharptons and the Reverend Jacksons and all the other folks who are advocating on behalf of Kerry just because.”

With 15 days to go before the RNC chooses its next chairman, in the wake of some endorsements from state party chairs handicappers are upgrading Steele’s chances at victory. But Steele is a more challenging figure for the party then he was two years ago, when he was a well-funded candidate for an open Maryland Senate seat. In that race Steele mastered the “taken for granted” argument, won national scrutiny and praise from conservatives, and lost anyway. After the election of Obama, it’s less clear how Republicans can convince black voters that the Democrats don’t respect them, or convince suburban whites that they are just as progressive on race. Despite Steele’s double-barreled approach to the issue, and his suggestions of how the GOP should network with and speak to black voters, this is new political territory and his fellow Republicans’ skepticism hasn’t helped his bid for RNC chairman.

After 2001, when George W. Bush came into office with a historically low eight percent of the black vote, Republican strategists worked at multiple levels to win over African-Americans. The president appointed three African-Americans to his first cabinet, and made high-volume alliances with some African-American religious leaders through pushes for faith-based initiatives and for traditional marriage. Everything came together in 2004 as Steele joined black Republicans like Don King and then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell in an under-the-radar campaign to win black voters in swing states. In Ohio, for example, George W. Bush’s share of the black vote surged from nine percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2004.

“I serve notice to the Democrats: do not take that vote for granted anymore,” said Bush/Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman at a post-election appearance at the National Press Club. “I predict for you right now that in 2008 the Republican nominee for president will get 30 percent of the African-American vote.” Two months later Mehlman became chairman of the Republican National Committee and began an aggressive media and outreach campaign to make good on his prediction.

“They said the right things,” said Michael Fauntroy, a professor at George Mason University and the author of Republicans and the Black Vote (2006). “To Ken Mehlman’s credit, they did more than they had previously done.”

The argument was streamlined in 2006. Democrats were not merely taking black voters for granted. They held searing, angry grudges against black Republicans, and revealed their deep-seated disregard — or outright bigotry — toward blacks. At the same time, they revealed that black Democrats cared about nothing but retaining power.

Slights against the three black candidates recruited for big-ticket 2006 races-Blackwell in Ohio, Steele in Maryland, and former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania-were evidence of Democratic racism and fear. “If we run him on our presidential ticket,” said Ann Coulter in a 2005 interview about Steele, “we could get the Democrats to start burning crosses.”

The Steele for Senate campaign pounced on every possible case of Democratic racism. A 2002 incident in which bullying Democrats handed out Oreo cookies in front of Steele was inflated by Steele spokespeople and conservative media into a “pelting” in which “the air was thick like locusts” with cookies. The Steele campaign attacked the late New York blogger Steve Gilliard for photoshopping minstrel make-up onto a portrait of the candidate. Two weeks before Election Day, the Steele campaign demanded an apology from Steny Holder, the Democratic majority leader from Prince George’s County, Maryland, for saying Steele followed the GOP “slavishly.” African-American outrage at the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina did major damage to the black Republican project, but Steele faced it by directly criticizing President Bush.


**At the same time, Steele made a normative, on-your-side case to black voters that was bolstered after white Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin defeated black Democrat and former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume for his party’s nomination. One week before Election Day, Steele secured official endorsements from a team of black Democrats who had been tacitly supporting him. “I cannot do this alone,” said Steele. “I have to do it with the community standing beside me, behind me and in front of me.” Democrats like Wayne K. Curry, a former PG County executive, scorched his party for acting “as though when they want our opinion they’ll give it to us.”

After all of that, and after spending $8.2 million (not counting ads purchased by outside groups), Steele lost the election by 10 points. He carried 25 percent of the black vote; two years later, Sen. John McCain carried only 6 percent of black voters in Maryland.

“The Republicans missed a marvelous opportunity by not making sure Steele got elected,” said Wayne Curry from his Baltimore office. “He really had a shot at winning.”

That’s the context for Steele’s current arguments about the GOP. If the “don’t get taken for granted” argument couldn’t make up ground with black voters in 2006, how will it work in the age of Obama?

“That’s all shattered on the rocks of the Obama victory,” said Bruce Bartlett, who argued in his book “Wrong on Race” (2008) that Republicans could do more to remind voters of the Democrats’ racist history, and who met with the McCain campaign to discuss his ideas. “Even up until end of the primaries, I thought that if Hillary managed to pull it out, there would be a lot of black voters who were pretty goddamned pissed off, and the Republicans could have appealed to them. But sometimes there’s nothing you can do but wait things out. It’s probably impossible for Republicans to improve their numbers among black voters until Obama is out of office.”

According to Sean Conner, the outreach press secretary at the RNC, Republicans can continue to needle black Democrats about whether or not their party takes them seriously. “The African-American community expected a lot more out of Obama in terms of cabinet appointments,” said Conner. “We’re making sure they know that under George W. Bush, we had far more appointees of color. One thing to watch for, under this administration, is the difference between the lip service given to blacks and the returns they get on their investment.”

But in his current bid, Steele is arguing that it’s Republicans who don’t take their black members or black voters seriously enough. Chatting with reporters last week, he took a swipe at an RNC whose “idea of outreach is a cocktail party.” The RNC’s Conner declined to comment on that, citing the organization’s stance on the ongoing election: “It’s a great time to be neutral!”

Even as he criticized Republicans, Steele rejected the notion that the election of a black, Democratic president had closed the door on the “taken for granted” argument. “Don’t go down that road,” said Steele. “You can always make that argument. Just because you’ve got a black president, it doesn’t change things for black folks. It doesn’t change unless you see the change.” Wayne Curry agreed with Steele. “One man in office is not likely to single-handedly alter the long-standing practices that led to our challenge in 2006.”

Bruce Bartlett speculated that an Obama presidency might “lower the temperature” of racial politics and “make black voters more like other voters, who don’t view the parties through the prism of race.” Republicans largely agree that having two serious black candidates for RNC chairman is, in itself, a boon for the party’s outreach.

“It’s a mixed bag,” says Fauntroy. “If Steele or Blackwell were to win, it would appear that Republicans were trying to find their version of Barack Obama. In politics, trying to copy someone else is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery. At the same time, if it appears that they were not taken seriously, if they’re routed among the RNC members, people will ask why. These are both qualified candidates. It will be hard for whoever wins, under those circumstances, to make the case for why the GOP should win minority voters.”

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