Republicans name an African American as their party chairman

G.O.P. leaders acknowledge they have a lot of rebuilding to do in order to confront a Democratic Party which won 95 percent of the black vote in the presidential election.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele holds a gavel after he was elected the first black Republican National Committee chairman in an election by the RNC during their winter meetings, Friday, Jan. 30, 2009 in Washington. Steele was the most moderate candidate in the field and was considered an outsider because he's not an RNC member. He beat back four challengers, including incumbent Mike Duncan.

In a historic move, the Republican National Committee has elected its first black chairman, Michael Steele. And with the White House now occupied by the nation’s first black president, Democrat Barack Obama, both major parties are under the guidance of African Americans – making Friday’s election at the RNC’s winter meeting in Washington doubly historic.

Republicans wanted “a new face, they want[ed] to show that there is change in the party,” said party activist Ann Stone, a Steele supporter.

Evident in Mr. Steele’s election was a desire to send a signal that the GOP has not given up on diversity and inclusion, especially after a presidential election in which 95 percent of African Americans voted Democratic.

Until last September, the runner-up for the national chairman’s job, South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson, belonged to a whites-only country club. Mr. Dawson had pushed the club from the inside to admit African-American members, but ultimately resigned his membership.

Steele was elected on the 6th ballot, in a hotly contested race that also included incumbent chairman Mike Duncan, Michigan chair Saul Anuzis, and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who is also African American. When Mr. Blackwell dropped out of the race after four rounds of balloting, he threw his support behind Steele – a move that drew gasps in the crowd, as the two men are not close.

After the first ballot, Mr. Duncan, the incumbent, led the field with 52 votes, but lacking a majority of the 168 voting committee members, additional ballots were held until a candidate won a majority. Steele won with 91 votes. Many members felt that a Duncan reelection would have sent a signal of party stagnation, especially given that the party’s two leaders in Congress, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, were both reelected to their leadership posts.

Steele made history in 2000 when he was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Maryland, the first African American to win a GOP state chairmanship.

In 2002, he was elected lieutenant governor of Maryland, making him the first African American elected to statewide office in his state. In 2004, Steele delivered the keynote address at the Republican convention, seen as a counter to then-Senate candidate Obama’s star turn as the Democrats’ keynoter. And in 2006, Steele was his party’s nominee for an open Senate seat, losing to Rep. Ben Cardin (D) by a margin of 55 to 44 percent. In 2007, Steele became chairman of GOPAC, a political action committee that trains and funds Republican candidates around the country. Steele is also a partner in the Washington law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Steele grew up in Washington, DC, and graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School, where he was class president. He earned a bachlor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington.

His family were Democrats, but Steele became a Republican on the inspiration of President Reagan’s message of self-reliance – and his single mother’s decision to work in a laundry rather than take welfare. Steele is also known as boxer Mike Tyson’s former brother-in-law.

Steele is known as a conservative, but not a hard-liner, and is expected to try to fulfill the promise of the “big tent” party that Republicans used to espouse. And in the wake of the Democrats’ successful 50-state strategy in the last two elections, where they opened and expanded operations in states once given up as hopeless to Democrats, Steele is promising a GOP response in kind.

“We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community,” he said Friday in his victory speech. “And we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be part of us. We want you to work with us. And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.”

The Republicans assembled at Washington’s Capitol Hilton responded with cheers.

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