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Michael Steele: Voter ID Rhetoric Is 'Irresponsible,' Party Needs New Approach To Black Voters

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File photo: Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele gestures from an elevator on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
File photo: Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele gestures from an elevator on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)

TAMPA, Fla. -- As the Republican National Convention drew to a close, Michael Steele, the party's former chair, said that his party needed to do a better job of outreach to communities of color, and that the rhetoric around voter ID laws was a detriment to those efforts.

The party offered plum prime-time speaking spots to people of color, including two well-received speeches from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. But Steele said that he was disappointed at the contrast between the podium and the delegates in attendance.

"There were a lot of people of color on the stage, but my problem is that there weren't any on the floor," Steele told The Huffington Post on Thursday. "That's where the rubber hits the road."

Only 47 of the 2,286 delegates at this year's convention, or 2 percent, were African American, according to a report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That number is up from the party's 38 black delegates in 2008 (1.6 percent), but way down from the 85 and 167 who attended the convention in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

"The proof is in the numbers," Steele said.

Steele said that when he took over the Republican National Committee's helm in 2009, he tasked the organization with seeking out and grooming people of color to become delegates, local party officials and candidates for office. He said that since he left the chairmanship in 2011, he has flirted with the idea of starting a super PAC to train and support minority and women candidates, but has wanted to be sure that a party structure would support that goal. "You want to make sure you have more than Mia Love in a cycle," he said, referring to the Haitian-American congressional hopeful from Utah who spoke at the convention Tuesday night. "We were lucky to have a Tim Scott and Allen West."

"I hate this thing when you have one [person of color], and everybody just fixates on one -- and the goal is to create many," said Steele.

Diversifying the GOP isn't just good PR: it may be necessary for the party's national viability. The Republican base has gotten whiter and whiter, but whites are shrinking as a percentage of the overall electorate, which could spell trouble for Mitt Romney in November. The Republican nominee is doing so poorly with non-whites -- a recent poll even put his share of the black vote at 0 percent -- that, as reported in the National Journal, he will probably need to win three of every five white voters in order to win the White House. ("This is the last time anyone will try to do this," a Republican strategist told the Journal, of trying to win the presidency with a primarily white coalition.)

Steele also called the GOP's approach to voter ID laws "one of bad optics and bad messaging," which contributes to a sense among minorities that Republicans are antagonizing them, and consequently harms the GOP's outreach efforts.

"The way we have talked about it and the way we have, in some cases, bragged about it has been tone-deaf and irresponsible," Steele said, referring to comments like those of Mike Turzai, a Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania who said that the state's voter ID law would help Mitt Romney carry the state in November. "Elections mean things, especially to the people who take the time to exercise their rights under the Constitution. When that's undermined by frivolous laws or harmful laws, I think that's harmful to the system."

Backers of the laws -- and the 11 states that have passed voter ID legislation since 2011 have all had Republican governors and legislatures -- say they are necessary to prevent in-person voting fraud, despite almost no evidence that it happens. But blacks, Latinos, young people and the poor are among the least likely groups to have government-issued identification but, significantly, are groups that are reliably Democratic voters. Voting rights groups have argued that the new laws amount to voter suppression.

Steele said that the security of the ballot is important, but listed several ways in which that end could be achieved without making voting more difficult. States should pay for the voter IDs, people should be able to get valid voter IDs at libraries, and places that traditionally distribute IDs, like the local DMV, should extend their hours "to allow that young mother, or someone who is working, to pick up their kids ... and then go on to vote," he said.

"We should make sure that if we're going to execute voter ID laws in this country, that we keep in mind the poor and we keep in mind those who [have obstacles to getting an ID]," he said, adding that having parents who vote can help children appreciate the electoral process.

"Those are the three answers that can help us, once we stop the insensitive and offensive language on this subject, so that we can get to actually doing the things that will encourage people to vote and participate," Steele said.

Steele also said the party should not try to reach out to black voters on social issues, even when they agree, as many blacks who share those views still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. "If you're gonna play the culture-slash-values card, you're going to get nowhere," he warned. "That goes into a misunderstanding of the black community. A black child going hungry is not sitting there pining for a discourse on gay marriage, or hoping his belly will be filled because his mama and the Republican party are simpatico on abortion."

He also dismissed approaching black pastors "for the purposes of filling some political agenda" without committing to a more involved engagement with black communities. "And both parties do it," he said.

Instead, Steele suggested that the party should focus on economic issues and entrepreneurship. "It's saying, 'We built it, we branded it, we financed it, through a lot of blood, sweat and a whole lot of tears, and now it's time for an R.O.I.' -- and that's a return on investment," he said.

"I believe in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," he said, adding, "and recognizing, like Thurgood Marshall said, that sometimes that you need people to help you do that."

Gene Demby covers politics for Huffington Post BlackVoices. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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