Friday, January 30, 2009

Change Works for GOP Too

Annapolis – Maryland’s first African-American Lieutenant Governor was elected to lead the Republican National Committee today. Michael Steele, from Prince Georges County (a Washington, DC suburb), was selected to lead the GOP after six rounds of voting. He beat out South Carolina Republican Party Chair Katon Dawson. Steele took 91 of the 168 votes needed to become the parties chief strategist and leader. Those watching knew there was something up when Steele scored 46 votes putting him in second place in the first round of voting. The former Lieutenant Governor continued to out distance his five rivals breaking through on the six round of voting. The winner needed 85 votes to win he had six votes to spare.

“It’s time for something completely different,” said Steele. The day did not start with the celebratory mood. Delegates staying at the Washington Capitol Hilton received a flyer under their door suggesting Steele wasn’t “tough enough.” In the rough and tumble world of GOP politics this is big. The party which claims Lincoln has had a tough time coming to grips with it post slavery message.

Up until the fifties most African-Americans were members of the GOP. The party fell out of favor following President Richard Nixon’s so call “southern strategy.” Dixiecrats (southern Democrats) flocked to the Republican Party with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Most legislatures and governorships were in the hands of Democrats but, this was what some called an “abomination.”

These were coded words for southerners who hailed states rights and derided the intervention of feds in their way of life. Fast forward to the mid seventies and the GOP went after welfare coining the phrase “welfare queens” and attacking “affirmative action” programs as “quotas.” Yea, this is the same party Michael Steele will lead.

This mantra of change is palatable. As I said in an early post the “status quo is unacceptable.” Change comes in all shapes and sizes. Claiming victory with change has its pitfalls. The old guard doesn’t give up power easily and the talking heads will likely find Steele lacking.

My New Best Friend

In the press room where I work in Annapolis all of us recounted the stories where we featured Steele. I was not immune. The phone rings and it’s the press secretary of former Governor of Maryland, Robert Erhlich.

Greg Massoni, “Yes, we were just ecstatic. The governor made a number of phone calls on the Michaels behalf but, we weren’t surprise” by the win. Massoni continues, Michael’s election proves “we’re a big tent party.” The Governor can be credited with launching the career of Steele. Despite Maryland being a Blue State; Erhlich, a Republican won. He was able to take the issue of race off the table by selecting Steele. Massoni recognizes how his time as the second man in charge of Maryland played into today’s selection, “it gets us to the next step.”

Late in the afternoon, Steele’s successor Anthony Brown, Maryland’s current Lieutenant Governor (who also happens to be African-American) weighs in with his own press release.

“I sincerely congratulate my predecessor and neighbor, Michael Steele, for being elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee. I wish Lt. Governor Steele the best in his new role. I am confident that he can bring an end to the RNC’s recent partisan approach to the challenges we face and reach a hand across the aisle to work with President Obama in restoring progress and prosperity to our great nation.”

Final Thoughts

If change is what America wants, they will get it in Michael Steele as the head of the Republican Party. I watched as he has ventured into areas that heretofore weren’t even thought of by the GOP. New ideas will be formulated; he will chase away GOP demons; and is likely to piss-off a few people doing it.

The comparisons to Obama aren’t fair. He’s different but, not a radical. He’s cautious. I’m reminded of a private conversation we had about an education commission he was leading on changing the school culture. He suggested in a report we should “pay math and science teachers more than art and music teachers.” I told him he was wrong. Setting up a two tiered pay system would fracture a system that already has enough problems. He seems to understand, suggesting it was important to get the best and brightest into the schools to teach. I told him then you need to change the conversation and policy.

Steele will tell you if you ask him….I pose lots of difficult questions. I have to…it’s what I do. I know at some point our paths will cross. We will be cordial but when it comes time I will again ask him difficult questions. At the end of the day I believe he will tell you, “Charles is tough but fair.”

Steele would like for you to believe he comes from the traditions of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist who shook the Republicans to start a Civil War and ended up eliminating slavery. It's great to quote historical figures but it will take more than great quotes.

The GOP has changed the conversation for now but it will take more than a narrative to bring this party back from a hole it has dug for itself.



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