WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican Party picked its first black chairman on Friday as it elected former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele to rebuild the party after a string of devastating defeats.
Steele, 50, is regarded within the party as a skilled speaker who can help bring the Republican message to black Americans, Hispanics, suburbanites and other fast-growing groups that have shunned the party in recent years.
As Republican National Committee chairman, Steele will have to find a way to counter Democrat Barack Obama, who was sworn in as the country’s first black president 11 days ago.
“This is a remarkable moment. Some say it’s historic, but it’s just one more bold step that the party of Lincoln has taken since its founding,” he said at a news conference, referring to the president who freed black slaves in 1863.
Steele has argued that as a high-profile Republican in a heavily Democratic state he knows how to talk to voters outside of the party’s southern stronghold.
As a U.S. Senate candidate in 2006, Steele said his party affiliation amounted to a “scarlet letter” that hurt his candidacy.
But with unpopular Republican President George W. Bush out of office, Steele said the party was ready for a new start.
“That was then, and this is now and this is a new moment for our party,” Steele said. “We can take that scarlet ‘R’ off our chest.”
A former Roman Catholic seminarian and corporate attorney whose sister was once married to boxer Mike Tyson, Steele has promised to close the digital divide with Democrats who have used the Internet to raise record amounts of money and build an army of volunteers.
The Democratic Party elected its first black chairman, Ron Brown, in 1989.
Steele will be under intense pressure to deliver gains in the 2010 congressional elections, as well as the subsequent redistricting process that determines legislative boundaries.
Many Republicans say the party does not need to rethink its conservative philosophy but merely do a better job of communicating its policies.
Friday’s vote was the first contested leadership race since 1997, before George W. Bush entered the White House.
Incumbent Mike Duncan, who was handpicked for the post by Bush in 2007, had hoped to hold on to his job but saw his support among the 168 committee members melt away after the first round of voting.
Steele, who some activists accused of being insufficiently conservative, received a boost when another black candidate who is popular with religious conservatives, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, urged his supporters to back Steele.
Steele defeated the remaining candidate, South Carolina state chairman Katon Dawson, by a vote of 91-77 in the sixth round.
Steele’s election could help counter a perception that the party has exploited racial tensions to win white votes since the social upheaval of the 1960s.
A racial misstep helped torpedo the candidacy of former Tennessee state party chairman Chip Saltsman, who distributed a parody song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” to committee members. Republicans said it displayed poor judgment, and he did not attract enough support to be listed on the ballot.
Additional reporting by Tim Ryan, editing by Doina Chiacu