Saturday, January 31, 2009

Steele Becomes First Black RNC Chair

Incoming RNC Chairman Michael Steele (AP)

(CBS) This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Former Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele will be the new chairman of the Republican National Committee.

He emerged from a crowded field this afternoon to become the first-ever African-American head of the Republican Party.

"It's time for something completely different," Steele said following his victory. "And we're going to bring it to them."

Later, he called his election "a remarkable moment."

"We've been misdefined as a party that doesn't care" about minorities and average Americans, Steele said. "Nothing can be further from the truth."

The most moderate candidate in the field, Steele defeated the more conservative Katon Dawson, the head of the South Carolina GOP, in the sixth round of balloting. He took 91 votes, six more than he needed to win.

Several RNC members called Steele's win a "historic moment" for the party, reports CBS News Political Director Steve Chaggaris.

Steele vowed to "cede no ground to anyone on matters of principle" in his victory speech. He said that Republicans "stand proud as the conservative party of the United States."

Among those Steele defeated in previous rounds were current RNC chair Mike Duncan, Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, who threw his support behind Steele after dropping out of the race after the fourth round of balloting today.

"I believe that the next chairman must inspire hope," Blackwell said upon endorsing Steele, a fellow African-American.

Republicans have repeatedly expressed concern over the future of their party in the wake of Barack Obama's victory in the presidential race, with some suggesting the party has to find ways to reach out to voters who do not traditionally gravitate toward the GOP.

"My concern is that unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday.

McConnell congratulated Steele "on his historic election" today.

The question of the size of the GOP's tent were brought into focus back in December, when former Tennessee GOP leader Chip Saltsman, who had hoped to become RNC chair, distributed a CD to Republican National Committee members featuring a song called "Barack the Magic Negro." Saltsman dropped out of the race last night.

"Steele's election won't help the party attract black voters immediately, but if Steele sets the right tone, he could help the party compete for them in the (way) future," said CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder. "As GOP strategists have always known, and noted, somewhat dyspeptically, it's white suburban voters, particularly women, who are responsive to a diversity message. The RNC isn't diverse yet; only five black delegates were chosen to attend the national convention. Steele was disgusted by that. It prompted him to run."

Before Steele won today, one of his aides today joked to CBS News Producer Mary Hager that if he did take home the prize, Steele planned to parade with his famous puppy. Back in 2006, during a losing bid for a Senate seat, Steele ran an ad in which he looked at the camera and solemnly said, "for the record, I love puppies." (Watch it here.)

Duncan, whose reelection bid failed today, gave a brief speech thanking his supporters and exited to a standing ovation, reports Chaggaris.

"The results weren't there," Duncan told the crowd at the Capital Hilton. He added: "Obviously the winds of change are blowing."

In 2003, Steele became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland, when he won the Lt. Governor's race. He is the current Chairman of GOPAC, a national PAC dedicated to electing Republican candidates in state and local elections.

Born in 1958 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Steele was raised in Washington, DC. He spent three years as a seminarian in the Order of St. Augustine preparing for the priesthood before deciding to pursue a law career. He received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

Steele ran for Senate in Maryland in 2006 but lost to Democrat Ben Cardin.

Steele's victory "marks a step away from the balkanized Southern white ethos of the party," Ambinder said. The pro-life incoming RNC chair has long worked with moderate Republicans -- a fact he did not play up during his bid for the RNC job.

"If he reverts to form, it means that the RNC has just selected a chairman who will not prioritize social issues above economic issues," Ambinder noted. "When people speak of broadening the party's geographic diversity, they are speaking in code. They mean that the party needs to welcome more moderates; needs to be more forgiving of departures from orthodoxy; needs to be less antagonistic to pro-choicers and gays."

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