Days before the 168-member Republican National Committee voted for its new chairman, Michael Steele seemed confident that he would be re-elected for a second term. “I feel good. What’s not to feel good about?” Steele told the AFRO in an exclusive interview Jan. 10. “We took a moribund, demoralized party that was touted around the country as an endangered species just two years ago and through a lot of effort and by taking a lot of risks we turned it around.”

In 2009, Steele’s first year, the GOP secured three unexpected victories – the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia and a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

In the 2010 mid-term elections, Capitol Hill Republicans gained 63 new representatives to take control of the House and 13 new senators. And across the nation, the party gained 690 new state legislators and several governors.

“It’s a good record to have going into the vote on ,” Steele said. “We put investments in our grassroots, in our state parties, and it benefitted us by reenergizing our base, locking us into our core principles again and ultimately doing what our members asked me to do … win elections.”

Despite that record, the censorious chorus of Steele’s detractors has not waned. The 52-year-old said that’s because he is a party outsider that cannot be controlled by the Republican Party machine.

But, the former Maryland lieutenant governor owned up to at least one of the sins of which his critics accuse him – his penchant for verbal blunders. “Part of it is the learning curve of coming to the job and realizing the megaphone is a lot bigger than you think it is, and that when you speak a whole lot of people listen,” he said. “I tend to be very direct and open about what I feel and believe … but as national chairman, people don’t necessarily want you to do that. And so you learn to temper that, and I have.”

Steele was less willing to accept other accusations against him. He called criticisms of his fundraising and management of the RNC’s war chest “baloney.” While several major donors withheld their donations to the RNC, an unprecedented number of individual donors helped the committee out-raise its Democratic counterpart. “The problem is they don’t control the money I raise,” Steele said of his critics.

As in the mid-term elections, the GOP powers that be have their ideas about where, how and with which vendors money should be spent for the 2012 presidential election. But he has different ideas, Steele said. “My view of it is every state should be the beneficiary,” he said. “I learned a very important lesson from Howard Dean; I watched what he did to revive a broken and demoralized Democrat Party. … He said, ‘Look, we need to play everywhere,’ so he didn’t discount states like North Carolina and Virginia.

“…We have to be relevant to every voter out there so we have to state the case.”

Steele became verbally agitated when asked about contentions that as the RNC’s first African-American chairman, he did not attract enough Black and Hispanic voters or make enough outreach to those communities. “What? Are you kidding me? … That is ludicrous,” he said.

Saying his first official trip as chairman was to Harlem and pointing to other efforts to help minority candidates during his term, he added, “Do people not realize we now have two Black Republican members of Congress? We have Hispanic governors that we’ve helped elect; we’ve got Hispanic and African-American members of state legislatures local office holders now. There’s been unprecedented attention paid to really building the relationship to the point where we can actually get people elected … that’s a sight more than they’ve done up to this point.”

Expectations that he would be a lightning rod to attract Blacks in droves to the GOP were “silly” and “unrealistic,” he added. “Again that’s that old silly mindset that some in the party seem to have – if we have a Black man or women, or Hispanic or Asian candidate or leader in the party then everybody in that community’s suddenly going wake up and be Republican,” he said. “The reality of it is the party has to work and you can’t fake it, you can’t skate around it, you have to actually engage.”

Steele’s efforts to engage Black voters may be stymied, however, by his stance on social issues that greatly impact the African-American community such as his opposition to President Obama’s health care reform. “It’s not my stance as an individual, it’s the position that our party leadership has argued from the very beginning,” he qualified. “We believe individuals should be making choices about where and how they get health care.”

There was no real in-depth discussion of how the legislation would affect discrete groups such as small businesses and how adding millions more to the health insurance system would not lead to higher premiums, the chairman said. “How do you have a national discussion on health care and take the cost of litigation out of the mix? … How do you have a discussion on health care and demonize one side and then ignore another? If we’re going to have the discussion let’s have it honestly,” he said.

And if GOP leaders are honest about his accomplishments, he should be elected, Steele added. With 27 public endorsements in hand and “way more” unofficial supporters among the 168 committee members, Steele said he’s confident he can get the 85 votes needed to win.

“I fully expect to win come the vote on Friday, but if I don’t, there’s always something to do,” he said, vowing to remain in politics. “I always have a plan B, C and D … I’m not going away.”

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO