POLITICS

Top Black Republican: 'You Can't Be Black' When Running For Office

Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele dishes on the racial hurdles he faced.

WASHINGTON -- When he first started his 2006 Senate run in Maryland, Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele prepped his staff about the difficulties they would face. They weren’t just trying to win a key Senate race in a pretty reliable blue state during a tough election cycle. They were also going to have to deal with the hurdle posed by Steele himself.

As an outspoken African-American Republican, Steele recognized that there would be intense fascination and scrutiny of how he handled issues of race. How would they deal with Democrats calling him an "Uncle Tom" or answer inquiries about the diversity -- or the lack of diversity -- on his campaign staff?

“What I told the campaign was, 'Look, these are things that we’re gonna have to deal with: who’s on our staff, who isn’t on our staff, because I had to deal with that as lieutenant governor,'” he said. 

The tough questioning wouldn’t be coming from just the media or his Democratic opponents. Steele and his aides would have to deal with Republican Party members made uncomfortable by his campaign.

“I had a black chief of staff and everyone threw a hissy fit, didn’t know how to deal with the brother," Steele said. "I’m like, ‘Dude, he’s a political operative like everybody else. He’s a chief of staff. Just deal with him.’ But that was a problem.”

In this week’s episode of Candidate Confessional, Steele recounts how those culture clashes continually erupted during his failed Senate run. And though he blamed his loss on a toxic political environment for Republicans (think: Katrina, the Iraq War, etc.) he also argued that the racial dynamics that affected his bid remain largely unaddressed today. 

Steele, for example, said he knew there’d be questions about why there weren’t any African Americans on his campaign staff. The reason was easy to explain.

“The [Republican] party’s never taken the time to actually groom blacks to be political operatives, to be campaign managers, political directors, communication directors, finance directors,” Steele said. “So when I have to go as a candidate into a statewide campaign, or even if I’m running for local sheriff, what pool of talent am I gonna pull from? I’m gonna pull from the established talent that has been developed by the white infrastructure, which is largely white males.”

“The [Republican] party’s never taken the time to actually groom blacks to be political operatives. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele

Within this system, Steele did have success. When he won the race for Maryland’s lieutenant governor seat in 2002, he became the first African-American elected statewide. He anticipated that his Democratic opponents would label him a sellout. But he was surprised by the offhand -- and sometimes direct -- remarks from within his own party. Steele recalled being regularly admonished for the way he said things. Code for: "You sound too black."

“You can’t be black when you’re a candidate,” Steele explained. “We’ve seen this play out with Barack Obama. I think he’s taken the short way out, which is not to deal with the issue of race at all effectively, except for when he really has to. He can’t be seen talking about black issues because all of the sudden, now it's 'Oh my God, then all you care about are black people.' .... But then again, if you don’t say enough, then you have black folks pissed off at you.”

Steele was heavily recruited by his party leaders to run for Senate in 2006, with everyone from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on down lobbying him to run. He ran what was widely seen as an effective campaign. But he ended up losing his Senate race to Ben Cardin by roughly 10 percentage points.

After that loss, Steele ran successfully for chairman of the Republican National Committee. His tenure there was tumultuous, to put it lightly. Though he helped orchestrate the GOP's takeover of the House of Representatives, he was criticized for poor fundraising and again for his blunt style. The racial undertones that caused friction during his Senate campaign followed him to the RNC.

“When I was at the RNC," Steele recounted, "I actually had a member say to me ‘you know what your problem is?’ I was like ‘What? I have many, but tell me.’ [She said,] ‘You sound too black.’”

Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week's episode when our guest will be Ben Konop, discussing what it was like when your worst moment on the campaign trail goes viral. 

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