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Man of Steele

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:35 p.m.
Man of Steele

It was never a matter of how, but when, the Republican Party would counter the Democratic Party's Black leader with one of their own. Last week, the GOP elected Michael Steele to head the party.

Steele, 50 and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, beat out four other candidates for the position, including Ken Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, whom many saw as the frontrunner. It took six ballots for him to become the first Black to head the party of Lincoln.

During a recent interview with Sean Hannity, Steele expressed his feelings about the new leadership role and if he will have any impact on changing the demographics of the GOP.

"I don't know, Sean," Steele began. "You know, it doesn't change with one person, you know. Just because a Black man is running the RNC doesn't mean Black folks are going to [say] 'Oh, OK, I will be a Republican.' Just as with the election of President Obama, all the problems and concerns that are very important to African-Americans don't get solved overnight. There [are] still Black businesses that are being redlined in neighborhoods that are struggling.

"So what I think it does do is send the appropriate message that right now, at this hour, the Republican Party gets it," Steele continued. "We are prepared to come into town squares and into town halls and meet with the community, talk about those issues, talk about the differences between us and work to earn their vote. We're not going to seed that opportunity any longer. This mindset [of] 'They won't vote for us anyway' is over. We are going to engage in Iowa to Florida to Nebraska to California, the Northeast. We want to be competitive everywhere."

Steele, who became the first African-American to win statewide office in Maryland in 2002,is viewed as a moderate conservative, and his victory surprised many in the party since he is not a member of the Republican National Committee. He gained some national attention during the 2006 election year during an unsuccessful bid for the Senate, losing by a 20 percent margin.

As a former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, he currently serves as chairman of GOPAC, an organization that recruits and trains Republican political candidates, and in that role he has been a frequent presence on the talk show circuit, including those of a plethora of right-wing pundits.

A few Blacks to the left of him, most notably the Rev. Al Sharpton, released statements about Steele's victory. "I congratulate Michael Steele on his historic win as the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee (RNC), and I congratulate the RNC for his selection," said Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. "I think in a strange way the selection of Michael Steele further clarifies the need for continued civil rights leadership in the 21st century. With an African-American president and now an African-American heading the opposition party to that president, we must have strong advocates that will clarify where our interests lie because clearly that cannot be decided by the color of those in power of either party.

"As we now in my generation have the leaders of both parties African-American, our generation must clarify and pursue our interests to close the race gap in education, the economic crisis, health care and the criminal justice system, which means we may at times find ourselves challenging people who share our color," Sharpton concluded. Steele told Hannity that this is a great opportunity for the GOP to move ahead.

"We're going to move forward and bring along those who want to be with us and open up our arms and our doors and our tables to new voters and new opportunities," he promised.