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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.

"When he was selected, there was a hope he would present a different image that would attract more African Americans to the Republican Party so that the party would seem more welcoming to people other than old white guys," said Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst who writes the Rothenberg Political Report. "He's been in the middle of so much controversy that he hasn't been able to do that."

As the conservative Web site Daily Caller noted in a recent article, more than two dozen black candidates are running in House races across the country, some with enthusiastic backing from Republicans in Washington.

But only a handful, such as Ryan Frazier in Colorado and Allen West in Florida, are expected to emerge as victors in primaries against other Republicans in districts where they could then also win the general election. Many of them either won't win primaries or are running in districts with strong Democratic incumbents. It remains likely that, after this year's elections, the number of black Republican members of Congress will remain the same as it has been since Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) retired from the House in 2003: zero.

"We are more diverse than we've been in the past, and that's something we will continue to work on," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) who has been involved in recruiting House candidates for the GOP.

Of course, the challenges for Republicans in wooing minority voters far predate Steele's tenure. It would have been impossible to expect him to dramatically turn around the perception of the party among minorities or recruit a huge bloc of black candidates in a single year.

Steele's office did not respond to a request for comment on his minority outreach efforts, but an interview last November, he said, "This is a baby-step process."

"A black chairman doesn't mean everybody is going to be a Republican. It doesn't work that way," he said.

Asked if Steele stepping down would negatively affect the GOP, Watts, now a lobbyist, said "What, with black people? We haven't done anything to attract them yet."

Thompson reported from New York. Staff writer Amy Gardner, polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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