MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And speaking of The Boss, there's a new boss at the GOP. Guess who's coming to dinner? The first African-American to hold the post. It took six rounds of voting for Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, to win the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. But once elected, he wasted no time. He came out swinging.
(Soundbite of speech)
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, Republican National Committee): And for those of you who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.
(Soundbite of audience applause)
MARTIN: Michael Steele joins us now on the phone. Congratulations, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. STEELE: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thank you for joining us.
Mr. STEELE: It's good to be with you this morning.
MARTIN: So who were you woofing at? Who exactly were you talking about?
Mr. STEELE: Inside the party and outside the party. The - you know, within the party, I told the folks throughout this process, I'm tired of the whining. I'm tired of the complaining and the finger-pointing and the litmus test. We know who we are. We know what we believe. It's clearly stated in our platform, so let's get busy about winning elections.
Those outside the party, our goal is to - as I said in my opening remarks - is to build a bridge. We want you at our table. We want to work with you on the big and small ideas of the day. But if your objective is to obstruct this process and to bog down the dialogue with petty craziness, I'm going to knock you over. I don't have time for it. I've got to build a party here. It's not rebuild a party; I've got to build a party. I've got to make sure that it's on a strong foundation and that we have something of value to say to the American people.
When 61 percent of your friends tell you they don't like you anymore, you better either, you know, reassess and get it right or you become seriously irrelevant.
MARTIN: I want to talk more about what the party believes and what you believe in just a minute. But first, I just want to ask you about how you knocked out this victory. You were in the middle of the pack and endorsements going into balloting. Incumbent Mike Duncan was in the lead. He dropped out after the third round. What do you think turned the tide for you?
Mr. STEELE: Well, the upside, if you remember the first vote, I was the sixth off the leader on the first vote. I had 46, he had 52 votes. No one thought I was that high and that's because I was very smart and very careful about exposing my vote because I knew as this process would unfold folks would go through and try to get that vote away from me, the lower that number. A lot of people thought I had somewhere between 25 and 30 votes going into the first ballot. We had 46. You know, so I think it was just building a very methodical objective, you know, stretch of, you know, votes, going member to member and getting those votes and peeling off as many votes as we could as early as we could.
Then we got to the middle of it, a lot of the Duncan votes when he stepped down went to Katon Dawson from South Carolina, and some of folks around me started to panic. And from my perspective, it was exactly where I thought it would go and played out exactly as I thought it would. I think the party really was reflecting on, you know, status quo versus new direction, and you know, fortunately, we were able to convince them that new direction made more sense at this time.
MARTIN: What role do you think race played in your selection?
Mr. STEELE: Very little. You know, that's one of the interesting things about the GOP. I mean, they really deemphasize that as a matter of principle and a matter of process. It never came up in any of our debates or forums. It was not a factor for the members, certainly in my conversations with them, and so I think that that aspect of this race didn't have the same impact that a lot of people thought it would, you know, looking at it from the outside, which is a good thing. I really - I ran this on my merit.
This is what I had done as a county chairman, a state chairman, as a chairman of GOPAC. This is what I've done as lieutenant governor of my state. This is what I've done as a grassroots activist. And so I wanted people to vote up or down on my record, not on my relationship with the media, not on my skin color, which would have been an anathema to the principles that Lincoln formed this party on in the first place. So I think that we weathered that storm in a way that didn't make race a central part of it.
MARTIN: Interestingly enough, there was also another African-American in the race, Kenneth Blackwell of Ohio, former lieutenant governor of Ohio and a candidate - unsuccessful candidate for governor. In an interview with Fox News Sunday over the weekend - and I must chastise you for talking to them before you talked to us. I can't understand how you could have made that misjudgment - but you said that - you talked about why the Republicans fared so badly in the last elections and have, in effect, become the minority party here, is what you said.
Mr. STEELE: They moved away from us because we behaved badly. We came to Washington, and we became like the people we were sent to replace, and they replaced us.
MARTIN: In essence you're saying the problem is the messengers but other people think it is the message, that the party is out of ideas and that the GOP has become the party of no.
Mr. STEELE: Well...
MARTIN: And some people - just let me finish this thought. Some people are citing the House vote on the stimulus packaage in which every House Republican voted no as evidence that the party is really the party of obstruction. What do you say to that?
Mr. STEELE: That's crazy. It's a bad bill. It's a bad bill. I'll start with that. It is a bad bill. Two-thirds of the dollars that are in this bill you won't even see for two years. Come on, that's a bad - what is that stimulating? That not going to stimulate anything. You're creating all these little pockets of government, you know, sovereignty. Again, you know, you go to government contract to built a road. You know, great. What happens when the road is built? Where did that job go? That job goes away. There's no sustainable growth for jobs here, and it's not going to create two to three million jobs. It will create several hundred thousand at best.
The reality of it is it's a bad bill, and what the members of the House did was smart because they said, look, when you have a third of the bill saying we're going to give you tax cuts and two-thirds of those of the rest of the bill is spending, that's like your boss giving you a five percent pay increase and then telling you that your cost for health insurance has just gone up 10 percent.
MARTIN: Fair enough, but you've made it clear that there's no daylight between you and the Republican platform that was adapted at the convention this summer to the degree to which the elections were a referendum on the party's ideas. What do you plan to do differently?
Mr. STEELE: Well, look. This is - I mean, we've not run out of ideas. We have just been very poor at conveying our ideas in a 21st-century manner. We were still running 1980s- and 1990s-style campaigns. I mean, how do we go through a presidential election as we just did in 2008 and not be able to go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama on the economy? I mean, well, we let Barack Obama look like a Republican when it comes to taxes and government spending. It's just crazy. I mean, we grew the size of government 40 percent. We spent money. We virtually nationalized some of the financial industries in this economy, which is crazy.
And so what we're trying to say now is we're moving away from that strategy because it's a poor strategy. It's not a healthy strategy economically. And we want to take those core conservative principles on the economy and wealth creation, job creation, and apply them in a 21st-century way.
I can speak to you in a way in which you understand exactly how this policy or that policy under our leadership would be different from what you're seeing from the current administration. And then you choose. Then you choose. We want to empower the American people with choice here when it comes to these things. That's why it's important to have the debate about the stimulus bill, and what we're seeing happening now is happening without a debate.
MARTIN: Can I ask you this, though?
Mr. STEELE: Sure.
MARTIN: One of the things that many African-Americans and increasingly Latinos dislike about the Republican Party - you are personally quite popular, and that's been demonstrated in the vote. But they think - a lot of people of color believe that the Republicans are more interested in suppressing their votes than courting them.
Even when you were on the ballot running for lieutenant governor of Maryland, there were flyers distributed in black neighborhoods saying if you hadn't paid your rent you couldn't vote, saying Democrats should vote on Wednesday, not Tuesday, which is not true. What do you plan to do differently to dispel the impression that the Republican Party does not want the votes of people of color?
Mr. STEELE: Well, number one, number one, be clear. My campaign had nothing to do with that. I didn't know about 90 percent of that stuff. It's crazy. And if I did, you know, I'd put my foot where the sun doesn't shine on all the individuals I caught distributing that nonsense. Number two, how is that different from the flyers that the Democrats put out in 1998 against Ellen Sauerbrey showing, you know, burning crosses and black people being water hosed saying, don't vote Republican? You know, let's not go back to, you know, you'll lose your civil rights. Both sides do this, you know, it's so, you know - that has no place in the body politic, number one.
Number two, the Republican Party is not for the disenfranchisement of the American voter, particularly the minority voter because we fought for that - a little thing called the Voting Rights Act? Thank you very much. We were part of the leadership working with the Johnson administration when the Democrats didn't to get it passed. So we appreciate the importance of the Voting Rights Act in the modern times now.
The reality still remains that the there are a host of folks out there that are disenfranchised day in and day out at the ballot box. We want a fair and transparent process so that every voter has a chance to vote. None of these crazy litmus tests and all that nonsense that you see happening even with something like early voting.
Mr. STEELE: We want to make sure there's a clear and open process, so that's the big thing for us right now.
MARTIN: OK. And finally, if I could just save the 30 seconds I have left with you to ask...
Mr. STEELE: Sure.
MARTIN: How does it feel to be the first African-American in this post?
Mr. STEELE: Well, it is, as I said, you know, as a young boy growing up here in Washington, D.C., to be at this point, sitting across the street from the Capitol and running the, you know, the national party for the Republicans, it's rather awesome. And I thank God for the blessing and the opportunity, and now I have the responsibility of leading the Republican Party and embracing America in a new way, and I hope to do my best at doing that.
MARTIN: That was Michael Steele, the newly elected chair of the Republican National Committee and the first African-American to lead the party of Lincoln. He joined us on the phone. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. STEELE: Thank you. Take care.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: You're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Our Behind Closed Doors conversation is next. Stay with us.