Former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael S. Steele wants to be in charge of the Republican National Committee. Are the Republicans ready to be led by an African-American?
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With the Census Bureau projecting minorities will one day be the majority, some Republicans believe they have a branding problem. As if things couldn't get any worse for the GOP, the Pew Research Center claims White voters are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party. The numbers of White voters calling themselves Republicans have been dropping for the past four years. And there are some Republicans who believe the party needs its own Barack Obama, a political star who can transcend race and party lines.
What few people know is that when Obama first took to the national stage in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, there was another African-American man who was already climbing the political ladder of success within the Republican Party. In fact, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael S. Steele gave the counterpoint to Obama's speech that year. Now, he's vying for chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, which would make him the most recognized Black conservative in the nation. ESSENCE.com talked to Steele about taking on this monumental task, convincing Black folks to better understand the party, and the possibility of one day stepping into Obama's shoes as president.
ESSENCE.COM: Why are you campaigning to be chair of the Republican National Committee?
MICHAEL S. STEELE: I'm running because it's time for this party to wake up and smell the coffee and recognize that the world around them is dramatically different than it was in the 1980's. We've seen the highs and lows of success and we've not handled either of them well. It's time for us to have a leadership that understands the dynamics of technology, the dynamics of building coalitions, as opposed to just organizing a cocktail party where you invite a certain group of people and you say look who we brought in. Coalitions actually require you to get to know people, work with them in their communities and appreciate the walk that they walk every day. That's something that I can bring to the party's table. It's important that we begin to move in a different direction and show America that we finally get it.
ESSENCE.COM: So you think you're the best person for the job?
STEELE: I don't know if anyone is the best person for the job, but I think I bring certain things to the table that are different. My experience as an elected official, as a local chairman, as a state chairman, and someone who has not only won elections but loss more than he can count will be helpful, especially to my friends in the Northeast who have been plagued by being outnumbered and outgunned by Democrats. My background is very different than most who are seeking this job. We'll put it to the test and see if it has any value to the Party.
ESSENCE.COM: So do you see yourself running against Obama in perhaps four or eight years?
STEELE: No, I do not. But I may have to eat those words if you play this back in four years.
ESSENCE.COM: Some have said these are some really devastating times for Republicans. Would you agree?
STEELE: Yes, and I would go back to 2006 when the devastation first began. We're down to 170 Republicans in the House and they will likely have 59, if not 61, seats in the Senate because of two Independents. Yeah, I think it's pretty devastating, but I warn my Democrat friends that our glass is half full and we have something still to deliver to the American people. We just need to get busy in doing that.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you believe Obama will stay true to his word when choosing a bipartisan administration?
STEELE: It depends on what you mean by bipartisan. The Republican Party is a conservative party, so, for me, the test will be in what kind of Republicans he's adding to his administration. If he's looking at conservatives, then yeah, that's bipartisan, because that's the majority of the party. I guess I have to wait and see how that unfolds, but regardless, as I have been telling members of the party, no matter how much we disagree, we must respect the office and the man or woman who's in it. I hope that courtesy is extended in a way where it shows how much Republicans want to see this president succeed. If a president fails, then we all fail.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think part of the difficulties the Republican Party has faced is because there is this division between moderates and conservatives?
STEELE: I wouldn't put it in those terms. We are a conservative party—period. So when you join us, you are joining a party that has strong views on government. There remains a thread between conservatives and moderates on how we view the economy, how we view creating wealth, and how we view opportunities for individuals. I say, let's latch on to those beliefs and weave a pattern for our party. Why focus on the fact that some of us are pro-choice and some of us are pro-life? Democrats have the same issues but they're running around the country electing and supporting each other. I would focus less on the battle within and focus more on the battle with Democrats.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you plan to get people of color re-energized about the Republican Party?
STEELE: I'm going to ask people to listen to what we're saying. The only way I can do that is to look people in their eyes, sit at their kitchen tables and talk to them in their communities. That's it. Our party runs away from that and it drives me nuts. We have no systemic effort to build that relationship. We talk a good game but we're not doing the important work of actually understanding what say, a single mother of three children—one of whom suffers from some debilitating handicap and dad is no where around and she's trying to go back to school—is going through. We can't speak to that and we need to, especially when we talk about why government assistance is one thing but being able to do for yourself is another. I can give you a fish but being able to teach you how to fish is better. As Republicans, we want to teach you how to fish. The Democrats will tell you, here's a fish.
ESSENCE.COM: So what's the alternative for stimulating our economy?
STEELE: Wealth isn't created in this country from the bottom up. With all due respect to the President-elect, he's dead wrong [for wanting to pass another economic stimulus package]. Someone has to take the risk and say, "You know what, I'm going to take all my savings and put in a certain venture to create wealth." Yes, it's a very tricky thing to do. Also, what are you supposed to do when the President-elect says we're going to tax you if you're making $250,000 or more? What's the incentive to make more money? All these people who moan and groan about the wealthy, they all want to be wealthy! All I'm saying is, be careful what you wish for, because the government is standing there at the door waiting to take what you earn.