After weeks of drama, the Republican Party has made its choice for party chairperson and they have selected Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. After six rounds of voting, he defeated his lone standing opponent Katon Dawson, 91-77. Steele was one of two Blacks in contention and is the first to lead the party. His selection comes as the GOP finds itself on the outs in the nation’s capital.
One of Steele’s first tasks is to position the party in national policy debates at a time a wildly popular Democratic President, Barack Obama, the first Black to occupy the White House, has endeared himself with much of the American public. Steele will not only find it challenging to counter the Obama White House but he will also have to contend with elements in his own party that do not practice a nuanced approach to dissent. Taming the beast within the GOP may keep the new chairman busy as he tries to become the public face of the party.
On a Sunday appearance on the Fox News Channel’s “Fox News Sunday,” Steele appeared ready to confront elements within his own party. “I think it's an opportunity for us now to move this party forward on the ideas that matter to the voters, and so I'm not in the mood to have people stand in the way and say, ‘We can't. We've always done it this way. It's impossible to do.’”
Steele also raised taking on poverty as a new focus of the Republican Party in response to a question from host Chris Wallace asking for an example of a new idea the party could pursue. The new chairman said, “Well, a new idea would be let's focus on poverty. Let's focus on how we can take someone who is being poorly educated in an American public school and how they are poorly trained for a job, and put in place those opportunities for them to get that education, give their parents choice in education, make it real for them.”
Michael Steele was raised in northwest Washington, D.C. and graduated from Archbishop Carroll Roman Catholic High School where he was elected the president of the student council. He went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and earned an undergraduate degree in international relations in 1981. Steele then went on to enroll at the Order of St. Augustine to prepare for the priesthood but left the Seminary prior to taking his vows. He opted instead for a career in law and enrolled in Georgetown University Law Center, and received his law degree in 1991. He spent several years at a Washington, D.C. firm before establishing a business and legal consulting firm.
Steele started his career in Republican politics as chairman of the Prince George’s County Republican Committee. He quickly established himself as a rising star within state Republican politics and in 2000 became chair of the Maryland Republican Party. He was the first Black to lead a state Republican Party. Just two years later then Congressman Robert Ehrlich, the Republican nominee for governor, chose Steele as his running mate and the party nominee for Lieutenant Governor. The Ehrlich-Steele ticket became the first Republican team to capture the Maryland State House in almost four decades. Steele’s politics are not easy to typecast and make it difficult for detractors to criticize. He is pro-life but opposes the death penalty, and as Lieutenant Governor worked hard to reform the state’s Minority Business Enterprise program. Despite his early success, Steele lost a bid for the Senate in 2006 in a campaign that was marked by high-level staff resignations and public relations blunders. Following his failed Senate run Steele became chairman of GOPAC and a partner in the Dewey & LeBoeuf law firm.
Steele will have to use all of his rhetorical skills and personality to make inroads into his own community. He will likely first look toward the Latino community to make some headway since the party believes it is more aligned with Latinos on cultural and religious matters. It lost significant ground over the issue of immigration as Latinos shifted to the Democratic Party during the recent presidential election. The GOP faces an uphill climb with both Black and Latino voters since neither constituency is monolithic and previous attempts to use a “one size fits all” strategy to court both groups has failed. If Steele’s notion of pitching a “big tent” is rejected by the white party faithful, he will preside over the continued erosion of his party. While the fine points of public policy will be debated, what the Republican Party has ignored to its own peril is the nation’s rapidly changing demographics. If Steele cannot center the GOP it will likely be reduced to a reactionary, regional party.