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Steele: GOP needs ‘hip-hop’ makeover

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Newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele plans an “off the hook” public relations offensive to attract younger voters, especially blacks and Hispanics, by applying the party's principles to “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”

The RNC's first black chairman will “surprise everyone” when updating the party's image using the Internet and advertisements on radio, on television and in print, he told The Washington Times.

Having been elected to the job that the Bush White House and its political guru, Karl Rove, once denied him, Mr. Steele is running the show his way. To those who claimed he can't make the trains run on time, he has this message: “Stuff it.”

He stiff-armed an attempt to get him to elaborate on his public relations effort, saying he would be an idiot to give his opponents too much information, but indicated the Republican Party needs to break out of being considered a regional party.

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”There was underlying concerns we had become too regionalized and the party needed to reach beyond our comfort” zones, he said, citing defeats in such states as Virginia and North Carolina. “We need messengers to really capture that region - young, Hispanic, black, a cross section ... We want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-surburban hip-hop settings.”

But, he elaborated with a laugh, “we need to uptick our image with everyone, including one-armed midgets.”

“Where we have fallen down in delivering a message is in having something to say, particularly to young people and moms of all shapes - soccer moms, hockey moms,” he said, though he insisted that party messages won't be different strokes for different folks. “We don't offer one image for 18-year-olds and another for soccer moms but one that shows who we are for the 21st century.”

Mr. Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and former state Republican Party chairman, defeated four rivals in the sixth round of voting on Jan. 30 to become chairman of the 168-member RNC. At the end of 2006, after Republicans lost their House and Senate majorities, Mr. Rove nixed a growing movement among RNC members - state Republican Party chairmen and elected national committee members - to elect Mr. Steele as their next chairman.

Mr. Rove subsequently left the White House to work for Fox News, and with President Bush on his way out of the Oval Office, the RNC was free to choose its own chairman instead of rubber-stamping the choice of a Republican White House.

While other former top Bush White House and campaign officials sent congratulations on his election, including former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, Mr. Rove neither phoned nor wrote his congratulations, Mr. Steele told The Times.

Mr. Steele said the national Republican leadership, with its emphasis on party discipline rather than developing a strong nationwide bench of candidates, put the party in the mess it now finds itself, most acutely in the Northeast. There is not even one U.S. House member from any of the six New England states, which have 22 seats, and the Republicans hold only three of New York's 29 seats.

“We missed the mark in the past, which is why we are in the crapper now,” he said. “We had the White House, the Senate and the House and were not building a farm team over the last years. We could have been ahead of Democrats and their 50-state strategy.”

See related story: GOP to hound pro-stimulus Blue Dogs

Top party officials and officeholders have suggested that Mr. Steele name as deputy chairman someone who can run the national committee's vast operations in fundraising, communications, candidate recruitment and training, and voter identification and targeting.

“I can run this organization just fine,” Mr. Steele told The Times. “There will be no deputy chairman, period.”

Still, the talk among some prominent senior Republicans was that Mr. Steele would need someone with “more experience” to provide guidance and organization. Reminded of this, Mr. Steele told The Times: “People who said I can't make the trains run on time never gave a reason. I say to them, 'Stuff it.' “

“I am not afraid of being held accountable for my leadership,” he said. “The idea I am somehow going to handicap myself before I begin is nuts. I am not going to buy into this mind-set among a few people who probably have never run anything but their mouths.”

Under Mr. Steele's helm, the “old” may seem inappropriate in the Grand Old Party's affectionate nickname. He said he is putting a new public relations team into place to update the party's image.

“It will be avant garde, technically,” he said. “It will come to table with things that will surprise everyone - off the hook.”

Does that mean cutting-edge?

“I don't do 'cutting-edge,' “ he said. “That's what Democrats are doing. We're going beyond cutting-edge.”

Mr. Steele has begun weekly meetings with Senate and House Republicans to coordinate strategy, message, policy and tactics but has no intention of trying to give marching orders to Republican members of Congress and their leaders.

“Part of it is being in the same room with them so they hear you, and you resonate to their thinking and strategy,” he said.

”My goal is to listen and to share, when appropriate, insights,” Mr. Steele said. “I think I can be helpful from a political grass-roots and messaging perspective. ... I don't plan to dictate policy under any circumstance. What I can do is tell them how the party base feels about the policies they will have to confront, like the stimulus bill.”

About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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