GOP picks its first black chairman, but will change follow?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders from across the country on Friday chose former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as the party's first black national chairman in what many said was a necessary response to President Barack Obama's historic election.

Steele, a 50-year-old son of a laundress, defeated two state party heads and incumbent Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan in the sixth round of daylong voting.

"This is the dawn of a new party moving in a new direction," Steele said after his win.

The choice of Steele, a relative moderate, to lead the party was the Republicans' first concrete acknowledgement since Obama's inauguration that they must chart a new course after George W. Bush's departure as one of America's least popular presidents.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the embodiment of the GOP establishment in Washington, had urged activists a day earlier to end the divisiveness of the Bush years and open the party to new viewpoints.

Steele vowed that Republicans no longer would cede most of the Northeast, the Midwest and other regions to the Democrats.

"We're going to bring this party to every corner, to every boardroom, to every neighborhood, to every community," Steele declared to a standing ovation in a Capital Hilton ballroom. "We're going to say to friend and foe alike that we want you to be part of us. And to those who wish to obstruct — get ready to get knocked over!"

The selection of a new Republican standard-bearer from heavily Democratic Maryland over four other party leaders reflected the widespread view that the GOP must draw younger, more diverse voters to the fold.

"In the 21st century, the Republican Party realizes and America realizes that the party needs to change," said Johnnie Morgan, a black Los Angeles activist.

Duncan, of Kentucky, who was seeking re-election despite Republican national election losses in 2006 and in November, dropped out after falling behind Steele in the third round of voting.

Steele defeated the last remaining candidate, South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson, on the sixth ballot.

Dawson, 52, congratulated Steele on his election.

"Today's hard-fought election among five honorable candidates for chairman was a testament to the strength of our cause and ideals," Dawson said.

Dawson's supporters, though, were stunned when the second black candidate, former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, withdrew and asked his supporters to back Steele. Blackwell's handling of the Ohio elections in 2004, which Bush won, came under considerable criticism for alleged voting irregularities.

Blackwell, who had the backing of many social conservatives, said afterward that he hadn't chosen race over philosophy.

"I deplore racial politics," Blackwell said. "It's never worked."

Blackwell said that Steele opposes abortion, backs gun owners' rights and holds other conservative views.

Patrick Ruffini, a 30-year-old Republican who launched www.rebuildtheparty.com two days after John McCain's loss to Obama, said Steele's first tasks must be "closing the huge technology gap" Obama exposed and reaching out to voters under 30.

"We cannot lose an entire generation of voters," Ruffini said.

Some of the 168 RNC members in attendance were dismayed by Steele's election.

Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said Steele had ties to Republicans for Choice, Log Cabin Republicans — a gay-rights group — and others at odds with party conservatives.

"It's a whole group that is as far left as you can get," Scheffler said. "I'll support Steele because I'm a good party solider, but certainly he's my last choice."

Steele's victory revives a political career that was in decline after his loss to Rep. Benjamin Cardin in Maryland's 2006 Senate race. He defeated Blackwell, two state party chairmen — Dawson and Saul Anuzis of Michigan — and the incumbent national chairman.

A sixth candidate, Tennessee Republican chairman Chip Saltsman, withdrew from the race Thursday after enduring weeks of ridicule over sending his supporters a CD that included a song entitled "Barack the Magic Negro."

Ron Thomas, a lawyer and Dawson supporter from South Carolina, said he was disappointed in his candidate's loss, but said that he looked forward to Steele's leadership of the party.

"It's a historic day to have a minority picked as chairman," said Thomas, who's black. "It's just an exciting time to have this chairman and to have Barack Obama as president."

(David Lightman contributed to this article.)

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