The Talking Head: Michael Steele
Steele’s relationship with hip-hop moguls like Simmons proved that he is willing to seek out some common ground with Blacks from the other side of the political divide. When Barack Obama came to D.C. as a senator, Steele reached out, looking to make a connection with the new blood in town.
“I’ve had an interesting non-relationship with Barack Obama,” Steele says. “Going back to when he first came to the Senate and I was lieutenant governor of Maryland. I extended a hand to meet with him to get to know him and to welcome him to my hometown. He refused.”
Steele was hoping that his win as chairman might bring them together. “[Some mutual friends] were trying to get the two of us on the phone for him to give congratulatory remarks,” he says. “Never happened. I don’t know what any of that means.”
While Steele has never met with the president, the potential connection with Obama is a running theme of his, and it plays out in his head like a sort of modern-day Martin-Malcolm alliance. In his mind, he and Obama are flip sides of the same coin.
“I guess what I would say to the president if he and I were in a room alone is, ‘You and I are a lot alike,’” he says. “’You and I have been put into various positions that have allowed us to be advocates on behalf of an agenda that I think is largely been given second-class treatment. That’s important. I can do it from the Republican side of the table, you can do it from the Democratic side.’”
IN MANY WAYS, Steele stands in the long, cold shadow cast by President Obama. Like the president, he has contributed generously to the big book of “First Blacks.” In 2000, he became the first Black chairman of the Maryland (or any other state’s) Republican party. Two years later, he was elected as the first African-American lieutenant governor of Maryland, beating back decades of Democratic rule. But when he became RNC chairman just 10 days after the nation witnessed the swearing in of its first Black president, many saw Steele’s win as a “First Blacks” competition the Republicans had long lost.
“The Republicans electing him chairman showed their thinking Barack Obama [was] Superman. So what they needed to do was to get Kryptonite,” Melissa Harris Perry explained on The Rachel Maddow Show. “Kryptonite comes from Superman’s own planet, so they went to planet Black Guy.”
While he was snubbed by his brother from planet Black Guy, Steele was well aware of the role race played in his election.
“I’m sure there are some who thought I would be a good counterbalance to Barack Obama,” Steele says. “But I told people before I started running, ‘If that is your thinking, you will be sorely disabused of that notion.'”
Unlike Obama, who had his base high off hope for years into his term, Steele faced an onslaught of criticism from within before the ink could dry on his business cards. His colorful statements were mocked by the media and pounced on by rivals in his own party. There was outrage when, less than a month into his term, he curiously told The Washington Times, he was going to apply the GOP principles to the “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”