Steele falling behind on pledge to woo more minorities to GOP

By Perry Bacon Jr. and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010; 4:51 PM

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele, under fire recently from members of his party for what they view as his shortcomings in management and communication, has also made little headway in another area: winning over minority voters to the GOP cause.

When Steele took the helm of the RNC last year, he said expanding the party beyond its traditional base was one of his main goals. But he has not been able to chip away at a current political reality: The vast majority of non-white voters are Democrats who generally approve of President Obama.

In a recent Washington Post poll, 23 percent of non-white registered voters said they had favorable views of the Republican Party, compared with 72 percent who viewed the GOP unfavorably. Those numbers were similar to polls taken in 2008, before Steele took over as RNC chairman, when 28 percent of non-white voters had favorable views of the party and 67 percent unfavorable.

African Americans' views of the GOP have barely budged since Steele's tenure began: In Post-ABC News polls following Steele's becoming the GOP's first-ever party chairman, 78 percent of blacks say they view the GOP unfavorably, again virtually unchanged from two years earlier.

Beyond a handful of speeches by Steele before minority audiences, there is little evidence the GOP has launched an "off the hook" public relations offensive that would take the party to "urban-suburban hip-hop settings," as Steele promised in an interview with the Washington Times shortly after taking the RNC reins. Steele has made some high-profile moves to woo minority voters, most notably a speech in July to the NAACP.

On Wednesday, Steele spoke at the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network Conference in New York, saying that such speaking opportunities are one of the reasons he loves his work.

"I came into this job thinking that I could pay attention to some communities that have been ignored, taken for granted or not been respected," Steele said.

As he laid out a litany of racial disparities in the education, health-care and criminal justice systems, the ballroom of black grass-roots activists sat quietly.

"The cruel truth remains that, for many African Americans, the American dream is just that: a dream," Steele said. "The justice system continues to demonstrate its bias, so the question is: What happened as we traveled along freedom's road? What happened?"

He pressed for greater acceptance of charter schools, for the virtues of small government, and for wealth-building in the black community. "Legacy wealth creation is the one thing that can transform the future of our families," Steele said. "I want to own. I don't want to be owned -- from the Middle Passage to legacy wealth."

Sharpton welcomed the RNC chairman, saying, "I give him credit for speaking to us and to other communities where he knows he may not exactly be preaching to the choir."

Steele's ability to connect with minority voters, nonpartisan analysts say, has been hampered by his devoting so many of his media appearances defending himself.

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