By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
NEW YORK, July 14 -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele continued Tuesday with the campaign he has come to call the "Freedom Tour," which is his attempt to revive the relationship between black voters and the GOP. This stop: a sales call at the 100th convention of the NAACP.
"We have a connection, and it is important and appropriate to recognize that," Steele said in a speech, harkening back to his roots in his local NAACP chapter in Prince George's County. "We have a historic link."
The NAACP visit was personal and professional for the first black man to lead the GOP, as were the stops he has made in Detroit and South Side Chicago, where his staff joked that his appearance was probably the first time a Republican chairman had ever been to that part of town.
In the past, Steele's place as one of the NAACP's most prominent Republican members has been awkward.
Five years ago, when President George W. Bush opted not to attend the association's convention, Steele said Bush was "not hurting himself at all" by not appearing and that the group's leadership had "put the NAACP dangerously close to being branded as just an arm of the Democratic Party."
Since becoming chairman in January, however, Steele has chosen to emphasize his ties to the NAACP, and in Tuesday's speech, he sought to tighten those ties even more, saying that he intended to depart from the "complete Republican's guide to speaking to African Americans."
"I spent some time looking at previous remarks by Republicans before this body, and I was struck by the litany of phrases that Republicans often cut and paste into a speech to this organization. . . . 'Party of Lincoln' four or five times . . . oh, and one of my favorites: 'Bull Connor was a Democrat,' " he said.
The line generated laughs and polite applause from NAACP delegates in the Hilton Hotel ballroom. A few stared expressionless, but most were gracious -- though not bowled over.
"I'm glad that he departed from the usual script," said NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous. "He has been a moderate Republican -- pro-life on the one hand pro-affirmative action on the other. People are inclined to believe he is a friend."
Steele is not the first RNC chair to try to woo black voters. In 2005, party leader Ken Mehlman made headlines with a speech to NAACP members apologizing for his party's history of using racial divisions in appealing for white votes.
"Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization," Mehlman said. "We were wrong."
Four years later, both the NAACP and the GOP find themselves at somewhat similar crossroads. The NAACP is trying to reimagine its mission as it moves into its second century, and the GOP is reimagining itself after losing the 2008 presidential election. Trying to take advantage of that in his speech, Steele suggested a shared future for the two organizations.
"As the African American middle class emerges and grows, the Republican Party wants to be a partner who works with you to put in place the tools necessary to sustain that growth and to bring out of poverty those so often left behind," he said, and continued: "The GOP and NAACP have very often missed real opportunities to communicate and engage each other. Indeed, for the GOP and NAACP, outreach should mean more than a speech here and a pat on the back there."
Later, he added: "Think about it this way: If a black man can become chairman of the Republican National Committee, then anything is possible."
Steele challenged the NAACP to join him on his "Freedom Tour," which he described as a conversation he is having with predominantly black communities to discuss issues such as poverty and entrepreneurship.
NAACP members seemed unwilling to go that far. "I don't question his sincerity. His challenge is going to be encountered internally," said Paulette Coleman, a NAACP member who is a consultant in Nashville. "As I understand it, the Republican base may not be as outwardly oriented as he is. Will there be internal clamps on it?"
Steele went out of his way to present a reassuring face. After his speech, he chatted with law school students serving this summer as NAACP fellows.
"If I can help in any way, let me know," Steele said. "Be sure to get me your résumé."
Turning to an aide, he said "Give them my card."
He grinned when the students asked to pose for a group photo.
Later, the law students said they were impressed by Steele's affability and offers to help them make connections.
"I was surprised at how willing he was to help," said Nicole Chong, a student at Florida State University College of Law.
Noah Grabisch, a student at Boston College of Law, shook Steele's hand but said later: "Him just being here is not important enough. He must take action, or this is just talk."
In his speech, Steele presented the same sentiment as a challenge to the NAACP:
"Certainly, my visit here does not represent some miraculous breakthrough in GOP-NAACP relations. This is the first baby step in many more baby steps to come. After all, we know that old loyalties and attitudes die hard," he said. "But the question is: If the GOP is willing to take those steps, will the NAACP be willing to do the same?"