Steele Sees Bright Future for African Americans in GOP

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Republican politician Michael Steele believes his party has gained significant support in the African American community and that his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate last November helped to lay the groundwork for future African American political candidates.

"I think the doors are open now," Steele, who now chairs the Republican strategy group GOPAC, told Cybercast News Service in a sit-down interview Thursday.

Citing his U.S. Senate campaign for Maryland, the 2008 presidential nomination bid of Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, and Massachusetts' African American Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, Steele said "there is going to be this groundswell" of African American candidates of both political persuasions on the national scene.

"More than anything, my candidacy and certainly my campaign in Maryland has awakened the Democrats to the fact that there is a generation of African Americans out here of Republican stripe, like myself - conservatives who resonate with voters, because I come from where they are. I don't fit the stereotype that they have," Steele said.

"So that is a challenge to them [Democrats] ... and an opportunity for us," he added.

"My goal now is to take that momentum and those doors that have been opened and to push them wider, to push the momentum forward," Steele said.

He aims to look within the Republican Party, he said, "and see other good African Americans, women, Hispanics, minorities who are not just good candidates but good leaders and present their stories and give them a chance to represent the people."

Steele added that the Republican National Committee's (RNC) efforts to attract African Americans to the party are "absolutely going to be continued - otherwise they'll hear from me."

"The past two chairmen, Ed Gillespie and Ken Mehlman, not just laid the foundation, they actually began to put some structure and form on top of it," he said.

After he lost the Senate race to Democrat Ben Cardin, Steele was reported to have been considering running for RNC chairman. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez got the post.

Asked about that development, Steele said he did not feel slighted in any way.

"I'm a hardcore, card carrying Republican grassroots guy, and so I go where I'm needed to serve, and it's the president's decision who the chairman of the party is. I respect his decision, Mel Martinez is a friend - I campaigned for him when he ran in Florida, and I look forward to supporting his leadership now," Steele said.

"I've assumed the chairmanship of GOPAC and I'll use that vehicle to work in partnership with other Republican organizations around the country as well as the RNC to get Republicans elected in '07 and '08," he said.

"We've got to recruit the candidates. We've got to organize the party. We got to develop the strategies. We've got to create the message that resonates with voters. None of this pie in the sky stuff that people aren't living and believing now, but real honest discussion about empowerment, ownership and opportunities," Steele said. "That's the core of who we are."

James Hedtke, chair of the political science department at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., remained skeptical about the influence the Republican Party has had among African Americans.

"I'd like to see where those inroads are, because if we look at the voting statistics for the last 10 years, where are they?" he asked.

"Ninety percent of African Americans on average are still voting for the Democratic Party," Hedtke told Cybercast News Service.

"In the United States there is no other group that supports the Democratic Party so solidly," he said. "To keep those blue states, especially in the American Northeast, they are going to have to keep the African American vote."

Hedtke conceded, however, that there were possibilities the GOP could make inroads.

"From the viewpoint of the African American community, they continue to vote Democratic, but what has the Democratic Party done for them in return for that vote? African Americans are getting disenchanted for really getting nothing truly back for their vote," Hedtke said.

Aside from reaching out to African Americans, Steele said the best way to strengthen the party is to listen to the base. "We've stopped listening to our base, so we need to reconnect there and reestablish that relationship, that trust," he said.

"The leadership needs to reestablish that trust that we will remain true to our core principles. That we're not going to go off and spend money that we don't have, that we're not going to go off and develop bridges to nowhere and that we respect the dignity of the person, and not prey on the young men and women who come to Capitol Hill to work on our staffs," Steele said.

"If we speak to these core issues, I think the base will strengthen itself and we'll be ready to take on Hillary and the Democrats in '08."

Steele attributes his loss to Cardin to "a very difficult cycle," and "a lot of frustration over the past year with respect to the course of the war, spending, immigration and a number of issues."

He has not, however, ruled out seeking public office again.

"I will be on the campaign trail for somebody between now and 2010," Steele predicted.

"In 2010 we have our governor's race up in Maryland, and the Senate seat is up. Elective office is always an option," he said.

For now, however, the goal is "to build the party, to reenergize my base, to reestablish the core principles of our party and to find some good candidates to run," Steele said.

Make media inquiries or request an interview with Monisha Bansal.

Subscribe to the free daily E-brief.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Monisha Bansal.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.