Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly described Michael S. Steele as the first African American to be elected chairman of the Maryland Republican Party. Aris T. Allen earned that distinction in 1977.

Steele Wins Election, Becomes Republican National Committee's First Black Chairman

Just moments after his election as the first African American chairman of the Republican National Committee, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and members of the local GOP react. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

Republicans yesterday elected former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele to lead their party, selecting the GOP's first black national chairman. The outcome also signaled a clear break from the leadership of President George W. Bush, whose hand-picked party chief was among those Steele defeated for the post.

With their party in disarray and seeking a new direction after consecutive electoral defeats, members of the Republican National Committee turned to Steele, who promised in his campaign for the post to help the GOP improve upon its dismal showing among black and Latino voters last fall. The D.C.-raised Steele excited many Republicans as a potential public counterweight to President Obama and a man who could help reframe the way voters view "the party of Lincoln," as he called it.

"I would say to the new president, congratulations, it's going to be an honor to spar with him," a beaming Steele told reporters after his win. Referring to criticism that Obama aimed at him when he ran for a Maryland seat in the Senate in 2006, he added: "I follow that with, 'How do you like me now?' "

His victory did not come easily. Steele, who was elected Maryland first's black GOP chairman in 2000, prevailed after more than two months of lobbying the committee's 168 members (three Republican leaders from each state and territory) in a contest that concluded with more than five hours of voting yesterday. Republicans needed six ballots to weed out a crowded field of candidates before a majority lined up behind Steele. He drew 91 of the 168 votes in the final head-to-head ballot with South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson.

The charismatic 6-foot-4-inch Steele, who sported a stylish gold tie and blue pinstriped suit at his victory news conference, will provide an immediate jolt to the party's image and a sharp contrast to the traditional perception of GOP leaders, almost all of whom have been white.

"He is very truly the representation of the party of Lincoln," said Joanne Young, who serves on the advisory committee of the Washington, D.C., Republican Party and attended yesterday's vote. "He will reach out to women and moderates. It's a very positive message for the country to have an African American who is at the helm of the Republican Party."

His victory could inspire a more aggressive effort to court moderate voters. In defeating five other candidates yesterday, Steele turned back criticism from some conservative activists. He is in the mainstream of GOP thought on almost every major issue but has also been a leader of the Republican Leadership Council, a group that supports GOP candidates who favor abortion rights.

"We have an image problem," Steele said. "We've been misidentified as party that is insensitive, a party unconcerned about the lives of minorities. I'm saying enough's enough, that day is over."

He added: "This is the dawn of a new party moving in a new direction with strength and conviction."

As RNC chairman, Steele, who lives in Prince George's County, will raise money, recruit candidates and appear on television to advocate for his party. A frequent debating partner is likely to be the new Democratic National Committee chairman, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

"I look forward to working with Chairman Steele as we set out to put partisanship and the politics of the past aside and get our economy working again," Kaine said in a statement.

Eager to distance themselves from the Bush legacy, Republicans dumped Mike Duncan, who was installed as head of the RNC at Bush's urging in 2007. In his unsuccessful 2006 Senate run, Steele blasted the Bush administration for its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq.

Dawson finished second after the other four contenders dropped out following a lengthy process in which committee members lined up every 30 minutes for a round of voting. Duncan bowed out following the third ballot, after watching his vote totals gradually decline in each round.

While Steele did not explicitly tout his race as an asset in his campaign, Ken Blackwell, an African American and former Ohio secretary of state who dropped his own RNC candidacy after four ballots, endorsed him by imploring members to "make good on the promise of Lincoln."

Dawson's candidacy had been dogged by his association with a country club in South Carolina that had a whites-only clause in its deed and had no black members. After learning of the deed last fall, Dawson resigned from the club and wrote a letter demanding that it change its rules.

But RNC members were clearly wary of picking another Southerner as their chairman (Duncan is from Kentucky). The party has dominated in that region but has slipped among voters in the Northeast and Midwest.

Only a handful of the party's voting committee members are black, and Republicans hope Steele will help them connect with young and minority voters. In his 2006 Senate campaign, Steele won a quarter of Maryland's black vote, a much larger percentage than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) drew last fall in the presidential contest. The black vote in the Senate race was carried by the winner, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.).

Steele's career has not been without controversy. In 2006, his campaign arranged for busloads of African Americans from Philadelphia to distribute fliers at polling places. Democrats argued that the fliers implied Steele was a Democrat and was backed by several black leaders who were not in fact supporting him.

In his bid for GOP chairman, Steele did not signal a major shift in the party's themes. He has played down his association with the Republican Leadership Council and embraced the small-government vision that congressional Republicans have touted over the past few months. Steele is a frequent conservative commentator on Fox News and occasionally fills in for Sean Hannity, the popular talk show host who backed his candidacy.

But he promised an aggressive effort, declaring: "We're going to win again in the Northeast.

"We're going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community," Steele told a cheering crowd in a ballroom at the Capital Hilton after his election was announced. ". . . For those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company